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Court avoids warrant for governor of Bavet

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The see-sawing case against Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith, who police have alleged shot three female protesters just over two weeks ago, took another turn yesterday as a summons was issued for him rather than an arrest warrant.

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Though Chhouk Bandith has been publicly identified as the sole suspect by the Minister of Interior, Sar Kheng, Svay Rieng provincial chief prosecutor Hing Bun Chea said yesterday he was not completely convinced by a police investigation seeking an arrest warrant.

“We followed the court procedure; we have to ask him to clarify the police report, we cannot believe the police report 100 percent,” he said.

Fourteen days have passed since the women were shot in broad daylight in front of police at a protest by about 6,000 people outside the Kaoway Sports Ltd shoe factory in Svay Rieng province.

Bavet police and provincial officials have repeatedly said they do not know where Chhouk Bandith is and rejected claims from rights groups that he had been apprehended at the border on Friday, arrested and taken to Ministry of Interior officials.

But a Bavet town police officer who declined to be named alleged yesterday that after Chhouk Bandith shot the protesters, he escaped and drove to Kampong Cham before moving on to Phnom Penh, where he was staying with one of Cambodia’s deputy prime ministers.

“He’s staying at [deputy prime minister] Men Sam An’s house in Phnom Penh. It is not difficult to find him.”

Men Sam An could not be reached yesterday.

The family of the most severely injured victim, 21-year-old Buot Chinda, has said a group of Bavet police officials visited her last week, gave her US$500 on behalf of Men Sam An and convinced her to thumbprint an agreement they later came to understand ruled out pressing  charges.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, has also said that Chhouk Bandith visited Buot Chinda in hospital on Thursday and asked how much compensation was needed not to press charges.  

Buot Chinda, who was shot through the chest, has now been released from hospital and yesterday said she feared for her life because the suspect was still on the loose. 

“I do not dare walk out of my home, because I am afraid about my safety. I want to appeal to the authorities to arrest the suspect,” she said.

Sar Kheng has wavered in his public statements about the case, first announcing he knew who the suspect was but refusing to identify them, then denying he was aware of their identity, and finally announcing last Thursday that Chhouk Bandith was the sole suspect.

Moeun Tola said yesterday the confusion was fuelling rumours that a political rift within the Cambodian People’s Party was influencing the investigation.

“Sar Kheng made a strong statement identifying the suspect, but at the same time, the information comes that the group representing Men Sam An came out and approached the family, and Men Sam An has a close relationship with the prime minister [Hun Sen].

“We don’t how many high-ranking officials Chhouk Bandith has a relationship with.”

Mathieu Pellerin, a monitoring consultant with the rights group Licadho, said the “ongoing murkiness” around the case suggested that Cambodia still had a long way to go in curtailing its notorious culture of impunity. 

“The way Sar Kheng seems to have let go of the duty of putting an alleged criminal behind bars, I think was very revealing,” he said.

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