Sitting directly opposite the three women he has been accused of shooting at a protest last year, former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith smiled as he finally appeared in court yesterday, 10 months after he was first charged with the crime that has drawn so much unwanted attention to Cambodia.
Bandith has kept a low profile since the three garment workers were shot in front of thousands at a protest outside the Kaoway Sports shoe factory in the town he then governed, and few expected him to actually appear at the Appeal Court yesterday.
Just under two months ago, it seemed Bandith would never see the inside of a courtroom when the Svay Rieng Provincial Court dropped its charge of causing “unintentional injury”. But an Appeal Court prosecutor later called for a re-investigation amid public outrage.
After deftly slipping past a press pack all but undetected, Bandith discreetly took his place yesterday and prepared to testify at what had been billed as an open session of court.
But the media, rights groups, a monitor for the United Nations and industry observers were quickly ushered out of the court before a single word of testimony was uttered, leaving it up to those inside to recount the proceedings.
Keo Near, 19, one of the three victims who was shot during the protest in Svay Rieng province, said after a five-hour hearing that Bandith had maintained he merely fired his gun into the air during the proceedings.
She said Bandith claimed he had no intention to shoot the workers but that his gun had misfired while workers scuffled with him and police.
“He said that he was not sure whether his gun fired or not, but he was sure that his gun misfired,” Near said.
“However, I request the court to punish him legally and make him pay compensation. He will threaten others if he is not imprisoned because of his power.”
Bandith himself offered no comment after the session concluded, waving reporters away as he made a swift beeline for a waiting black Lexus SUV.
“You will know after the verdict is announced, but I won’t comment on anything now,” he said.
Twenty-five witnesses were called during yesterday’s hearing, all but two of whom were in attendance. All of the witnesses summonsed —including six uniformed police and a military police official — supported Bandith’s account of the incident.
Outside the court, one of the officers, In Saroeun, deputy chief of Bavet town’s anti-child trafficking and juvenile protection police, gave a hint of what his testimony would be.
“I was 10 to 20 metres from where the incident took place. When loud firing erupted, when I looked behind, Chhouk Bandith was holding a gun, but I’m not sure whether he shot or not,” Saroeun said.
Although multiple witnesses had previously accused Bandith, who was named as a suspect by none other than Interior Minister Sar Kheng, charges were dropped by the Svay Rieng provincial court in December.
That briefly left Bavet town penal police chief Sar Chantha — who in August was quietly charged — as the sole suspect. Chantha has vehemently denied the charges.
At yesterday’s hearing, Chantha’s lawyer stormed out of the courtroom, furious that judges had refused to accept his client’s complaint against the charges levelled against him by the provincial court, on the grounds that he was a witness in the current case.
Others were disappointed by the court’s conduct, including Am Sam Ath, a senior supervisor at rights group Licadho, who bemoaned the fact that every witness called yesterday — bar the victims — supported Bandith’s testimony.
“The important thing is that the court has to ask for the camera [footage] from the factories to play and watch all the activities,” he said. “And I don’t believe it didn’t work that day, because each factory’s camera never broke. And if it is regular, why not publicly show that camera [footage]?”
But James Heenan, officer-in-charge of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the very fact that the case was being reviewed was a positive step.
“We welcome the fact the Court of Appeal is able to review the decision to drop charges against Mr Bandith, a decision that was itself widely criticised,” Heenan wrote in an email.
Outside the court, a small group of demonstrators waved banners and issued calls for justice through loudspeakers. “Obey your conscience,” one protester urged.
The questioning of witnesses continues today.