In a shock development, a court official said yesterday deposed Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith had confessed to shooting three women at a protest last month in a case that has brought international scrutiny to Cambodia’s judicial system.
Svay Rieng provincial prosecutor Hing Bun Chea said Chhouk Bandith had confessed to the triple shooting, outside the Kaoway Sports Ltd shoe factory, after going to the court a day early for questioning. Despite the confession, he walked out of court a free man.
“I already questioned him this morning. He was accompanied by his lawyer. He confessed to the shooting, but he gave me many reasons for that,” Hing Bun Chea said.
“It is my right not to arrest [him]. I don’t see it as important. I investigated in accordance with [my] role and procedures.”
On Thursday last week, Svay Rieng deputy provincial governor Men Vibol announced that Chhouk Bandith, the sole supect, had been removed from his position as Bavet town governor to prevent him wielding judicial influence in the case.
Bavet town officials have allegedly attempted to buy the silence of all three victims, 21-year-old Buot Chinda, 18-year-old Keo Neth and 23-year-old Nuth Sakhorn, offering between $US500 and $1,000 for them not to press charges.
Buot Chinda, who was shot in the chest and went into hiding after filing a complaint against Chhouk Bandith, said yesterday she feared for her safety because he was still free.
“I am angry that he has not been arrested while everyone knows that he shot me and others,” she said.
Sam Prachea Manith, director of cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, said the decision to arrest or not was up to the court.
“If the suspect has a real address and they [the court] are sure the suspect will not escape and can deposit money with the court, this suspect is not [necessarily] detained,” he said.
Chhouk Bandith could not be reached for comment yesterday, and his lawyer, Mao Sam Putheary, declined to comment. Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the prosecutor could technically release the suspect without asking the investigating judge to arrest him if he intended to charge him with battery, a misdemeanour, rather than a more serious crime.
“It may be a problem about the interpretation of the law, I think. It also depends on the type of crime,” he said.
“It is a problem with the Cambodian legal system. For me, I think if he used a gun, it is what we call physical force.
“If he is shooting, even if it is shooting the legs, it can do very serious damage.”
Rights groups such as Licadho and the Cambodian Legal Education Centre have repeatedly asserted that the case is a clear example of attempted murder because the gunman shot directly into a crowd of about 6,000 protesters who were demanding improved pay conditions.
Last Monday, Hing Bun Chea issued a summons rather than an arrest warrant for Chhouk Bandith, saying he was not convinced by the police report, despite the fact the former governor had been identified by Interior Minister Sar Kheng as the sole suspect.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the failure of the prosecutor again to seek an arrest was more evidence of corruption in the case, which needed to be investigated.
“They [the court] know full well that they are not fulfilling their obligations to the investigations, that the whole thing is a sham and that they’re not trying to investigate because the whole thing is a pre-determined outcome,” he said.
“It’s another stark example of the widespread impunity that is going on in this country. It’s a sad state of affairs for the justice system.”
A group of 32 rights groups and unions, including CCHR, issued a statement yesterday calling on the government to ensure that Chhouk Bandith’s arrest become a top priority.
“Many Cambodian garment workers already live a life of hardship, suffering, poverty and uncertainty. As such, the workers should receive protection and support from the State, not face further victimisation through brutal acts of violence,” the statement said.
PUMA, which sources shoes from the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory, has launched its own investigation into the case.
In a statement yesterday, PUMA again urged the Cambodian government to ensure a fair, impartial investigation was conducted, saying its primary concern was the security and safety of the workers.