As authorities denied harbouring him and calls for his charges to be upgraded to murder grew louder, deposed Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith remained a free man last night – even after a court upheld his 18-month prison sentence.
With Bandith absent from yet another hearing yesterday, the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh agreed that the former official turned fugitive inflicted “unintentional violence” on three women when he fired into a crowd of garment workers striking outside the Kaoway Sports factory in Svey Rieng province in February last year.
The court ordered Bandith to be arrested – an order that authorities have failed to execute since his sentencing in June – and also upheld convictions against Sar Chantha, still deputy chief of Bavet town police, who received six months’ probation for the lesser charge of illegal weapons use.
Judge Taing Sunlay said the decision against Bandith in June, made by Svey Rieng Provincial Court, was proper and “made within the law”.
“So the Court of Appeal … orders the arrest of Chhouk Bandith so he can be punished according to this verdict and the law,” Sunlay said.
Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, said both his officers and the National Police were working to arrest Bandith, adding that he did not know his whereabouts.
“Police are not hiding him,” he said. “So far, we just haven’t found him. We don’t know whether he’s hiding in Cambodia or has fled to live overseas.
“We’re still working hard to seek his arrest in order to bring him to be punished according to the law.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government wanted to see Bandith behind bars, but could not explain why he had evaded the long arm of the law for so long.
“In principle, he has to be in jail.”
Other officials, including Ministry of Interior Sar Kheng, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak and National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith could not be reached for comment. Rights groups again questioned the extent to which authorities were trying to arrest Bandith.
In a statement released yesterday, Adhoc not only condemned a system that has failed to arrest Bandith, but said the charges against the deposed governor should be upgraded.
“Mr Bandith has yet to spend a single day in prison and the light sentence handed down to him is likely more a reflection of his political connections than the gravity of the crime he committed,” the statement says.
“It is the view of Adhoc that given the numerous witnesses who put him at the scene raising his gun and walking into the crowd when shots were fired, he should face the qualification of attempted murder.
“Mr Bandith has made a mockery of Cambodia’s already beleaguered judiciary.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it “deplores the decision of the Court of Appeal to uphold the conviction of Chhouk Bandith for ‘acts of unintentional injuries’ and his sentence to 18 months’ imprisonment, rather than changing the charges to more accurately reflect the nature of the crimes committed”.
Buot Chenda, Keo Near and Nuth Sakhorn were shot during a violent protest last year at the Puma supplier as they protested with more than 6,000 other workers from the Manhattan Special Economic Zone.
Bandith’s conviction came after Minister of Interior Sar Kheng named him as the sole suspect in the case and a number of other witnesses identified him as the shooter.
Bandith was charged but not arrested, before the Svay Rieng Provincial Court dropped their case against him last December, sparking outrage from victims and rights groups.
In March, the Appeal Court ordered he be retried after reinvestigating the case.
In June, unintentional violence charges against Chantha, who remained as deputy chief of Bavet police after the shooting, were dropped.
He was, however, found guilty of illegal weapons use, fined 1 million riel ($250) and sentenced to six months’ probation.
Bandith was ordered to pay a total of $9,500 to the victims.
From the perspective of the rights of garment workers and the industry, Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group ACILS/Solidarity Center, said yesterday it was “difficult to over-emphasise how badly this reflects on Cambodia’s reputation internationally”.
Welsh said that Puma – the brand that bought from the factory – had been willing to get involved in the case by sending high-level representatives to Cambodia.
“But the industry as a whole could take a more unified stand,” he said. “They have an enormous amount of leverage.”
Neither Bandith nor his legal team could be reached yesterday, while the victims of the shooting were also unavailable for comment.