They've been shot, intimidated and offered money for silence, but a day after it was revealed that charges were dropped against the implicated former Bavet governor, the three garment workers wounded at a protest said they had no intention of backing down and refiled complaints against Chhouk Bandith.
Keo Near, Nuth Sakhorn and Bout Chenda – who were all shot in front of thousands at a February protest in Svay Rieng province’s Manhattan Special Economic Zone – vowed to fight on even as they conceded it was likely futile to try and seek justice against the powerful.
“How can I accept its [the Svay Rieng provincial court’s] decision if he [Chhouk Bandith] shot us like animals but is not guilty? We are lucky to be alive. It is so unjust,” Sakhorn said.
Much of the outrage that poured in yesterday from rights groups and unions focused on the fact that Bandith had been identified as the prime suspect by none other than Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and that Bandith had confessed to accidentally firing his gun.
Bandith, who was removed as Bavet town governor after he was identified as a suspect, has powerful connections in the government – his wife is a relative of Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An.
After Bandith was charged with unintentionally causing injury based on the widely ridiculed explanation that he had tried to fire into the air but ended up hitting protesters, Bavet town government officials attempted to bribe the victims into silence.
One victim reported the attempted pay-off came directly from Sam An.
On Monday, the charge against Bandith was revealed to have been dropped; in Bandith’s place now stands Bavet town police chief Sar Chanta, up on the same felony, with court officials offering no explanation as to how the shooter, identified by multiple witnesses, could suddenly change.
Svay Rieng court president Pich Chhert said yesterday Chantha was not being detained.
“We cannot talk about the decision but we have enough documents. Victims can appeal if they cannot accept the decision,” he said.
Chenda, who was left in critical condition after being shot through the chest at the protest, simply questioned how it was that provincial court could find Bandith innocent without trial.
“I have to go against [Bandith], even though I know I am hopeless at the court,” she said, after refiling her complaint.
Union leaders were also puzzled by the court’s decision to let Bandith walk free without trial. They vowed to stage a mass protest of garment workers in response, though a date has yet to be set.
Chea Mony, who took over presidency of the Free Trade Union from his brother Chea Vichea after his 2004 assassination, said even with this year’s court debacle surrounding the murder of activist Chut Wutty, it was hard to see how a suspect identified by Sar Kheng could be released without trial.
“Impunity should be ended; we have lost the confidence in the court system, so we will do a demonstration,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, echoed those sentiments.
“We will struggle for justice and fear for the victims, and the suspect should be sentenced legally. And we don’t know how many people join with us,” he said.
The Cambodian Center for Human rights called on sportswear giant PUMA, which sources products from the Kaoway shoe factory where the shooting took place, to “pull out of Cambodia completely” or face a backlash from consumers.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, questioned what CCHR hoped to achieve by calling on PUMA to pull out.
“Unless what the rights groups are saying is that buyers should stop doing business in Cambodia because it would affect their reputation, at least I can see the correlation,” Loo said. “But if it is that buyers should stop placing orders in Cambodia because of the court’s decision, what’s the relationship between that?” he asked, adding that the factory had absolutely nothing to do with the court, nor any clout to influence it.
If PUMA pulled out, said Loo, it would simply hurt everyone, including workers that were employed at their supply factories.
In a statement yesterday, PUMA said it was “disappointed justice had not been brought almost a year after the crime was committed”, stressing that it was imperative all workers involved in the manufacturing of their products stayed in a safe and healthy environment. “PUMA will therefore contact various local multi-stakeholder organisations to assess how the company can provide help in kind to the three women affected by the random shooting to alleviate their situation,” the statement reads.
“PUMA wants to make clear that this support is intended to help the affected workers in their current situation until the guilty perpetrator has been found and convicted and fulfills adequate damage compensation obligations.”