One week ago, fugitive tycoon Thong Sarath was arrested in Vietnam after almost five months on the run. He was swiftly charged with possession of weapons and premeditated murder for allegedly masterminding the killing of Shimmex Group chairman Ung Meng Cheu, and sent immediately to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.
The action taken against the once-powerful okhna flies in stark contrast to sluggish efforts made to detain former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith – despite widespread rumours that he remains in Cambodia – after he shot three female garment workers during a 2012 demonstration.
In June 2013, Bandith was sentenced in absentia by the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to 18 months' imprisonment and ordered to pay $9,500 in total compensation to his three victims under the widely decried charge of “unintentional violence”, which many have called to be changed to “attempted murder”. And while a conviction was laid, justice is yet to be served.
Keo Near, one of the workers injured by Bandith, said that while she continues to suffer from her injuries, she has little hope that the “powerful perpetrator” will ever pay.
If the shooting “had not been committed by Chhouk Bandith, [the perpetrator] would have been arrested. But he is powerful and rich”, she said.
The discrepancies between the handling of the cases of Sarath and Bandith, said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, highlight the “double standards of the justice system in Cambodia”.
When the victims have links with the government, she explained, action is more likely to be taken than when ordinary people are the ones who suffer.
“If you look at the nature of the [Sarath] case, it’s with another tycoon,” she said, whereas Bandith targeted “garment workers who are poor”.
Sopheap added that if Sarath had masterminded the murder of a garment worker, “probably the case would not even cross into the court in the first place”.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with local rights group Licadho, said that while police were able to catch Sarath outside of the country, Bandith is able to remain inside Cambodia because he still has the backing of powerful government officials.
“The case of Chhouk Bandith,” he said, “means impunity continues happening, because other people think that if a [powerful] person has committed a crime, they cannot be punished.”
A police officer in Bavet, who asked not to be named, admitted that Bandith’s powerful connections mean that he is allowed to remain at large.
“The authorities just do not dare to arrest him,” he said.
According to legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, the “minor” nature of his conviction means that if Bandith can continue evading justice, his prison sentence will soon be dropped, though the compensation to his victims would still need to be paid.
“If five years pass, he is no longer guilty,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY