The price of justice in Bavet town is cheap if the alleged efforts of local officials to bribe shooting victim Buot Chinda are any indication.
In the border town known for gambling and garment factories, municipal officials yesterday offered Buot Chinda her choice of US$1,000 or a new motorbike for her silence over town governor and sole suspect Chhouk Bandith’s role in her near-fatal shooting, both her brother and a deputy village chief said.
About seven municipal officials from the town in Svay Rieng province paid the family a visit at their Prey Phdao village home in Bavet town’s Chrak M’tes commune to make the offer in exchange for thumb-printing an agreement not to press charges, her elder brother Sam Sinat said.
“They look down on my sister’s life like a chicken. Now I am worried about my sister’s safety, because those authorities know my house well,” he said.
Sam Sinat said his 21-year-old sister – who was shot through the chest at the rowdy protest outside the Kaoway Sports Ltd shoe factory in Svay Rieng province on February 20 – would bow neither to temptation nor intimidation.
“I want to find justice for my sister. My sister’s life is not like an animal so that they can shoot at [her] anytime they want,” he said.
She still plans to press charges in about three days time, but will leave Bavet first, fearing that if town officials can’t buy her off, they will resort to more sinister ways to silence her, Sam Sinat added.
Buot Chinda returned to her home on Monday after being released from Phnom Penh’s Calmette hospital two weeks after she was shot along with 18-year-old Keo Neth and 23-year-old Nuth Sakhorn by a man who fled the scene despite the presence of police.
Sok Sea, deputy Prey Phdao village chief, said five officials from Bavet town, including the police chief, his two deputies and two Chrak M’tes commune chiefs, joined him in attempting to facilitate the deal.
“I don’t know where they got that money from, and they came to the victim’s village three times already, but Chhouk Bandith never came, only his deputy governor,” he said.
Despite Sok Sea’s account of the meeting, Bavet town police chief Keo Kong denied he had been involved in any such negotiations.
“I did not go to victim’s house. I don’t know about the news that they offered the victim $1,000 to stop her plan to file a complaint,” he said.
Last week, Sam Sinat also told the Post that Bavet town officials had visited his sister in hospital, offering her a gift of about $500 from deputy prime minister Men Sam An while again handing her an agreement not to press charges.
Rights groups are closely monitoring the case, fearing it will unfold like so many other dubious chapters in the recent history of the Cambodian justice system – with scapegoats, impunity and corruption.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the alleged attempted payoff by Bavet officials was particularly stupid as it simply added to the weight of evidence against their boss.
“What are they trying to do? This shows it is true that Chhouk Bandith is the perpetrator,” he said.
He said that by law, police should have arrested the suspect immediately after the shooting, which they witnessed, adding there was ample evidence now to arrest Chhouk Bandith, including a ballistics report from the Ministry of Interior.
On Monday, the Svay Rieng provincial court issued a summons instead of a warrant for Chhouk Bandith – who has been identified as the sole suspect by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng - claiming police reports were not sufficiently conclusive to arrest the governor.
The shooting took place in front of about 6,000 protesters, including police, and was reportedly caught in security footage that Ministry of Interior officials had inspected.
Mathieu Pellerin, a monitoring consultant with rights group Licadho, said the minister of justice could and should intervene to have the case moved to another court if there was sufficient evidence of judicial interference.
“I think that’s proof enough for people to know that if there is justice and rule of law in this case, it’s not going to go through authorities in Svay Rieng,” he said.
Sam Prachea Manith, director of cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, said it was untrue that Bavet officials had tried to pay off Buot Chinda’s family, before declining to comment further.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said he knew nothing about judicial interference in the case.