In just 30 minutes, and out of public view, the Court of Appeal yesterday ordered the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to reinvestigate the case against former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith, who stands accused of shooting three garment workers during a protest last year.
The decision effectively places the reinvestigation back in the hands of a court that in December dropped charges against Bandith, citing insufficient evidence
Speaking to journalists after the hearing, prosecuting judge Khun Meng Leang said Bandith’s charges of causing unintentional injury had been re-levied.
“We are sending the case back to the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to prosecute legally,” he said.
The decision came after two days of hearings that included some two dozen witness testimonies – all but one of whom supported Bandith’s side of the story.
Rights workers have said their own investigations suggest there were a number of eye-witnesses who refused to testify after learning who the suspect was.
The single witness who challenged Bandith’s version of accounts, Prasat commune deputy police chief Long Phorn, said he was just seven metres away from Bandith when the former governor opened fire.
“He did not shoot into the air,” Phorn said last week.
Victims and rights monitors alike were tempered in their reaction: pleased, on the one hand, that the case would remain open, but sceptical for the prospects of a fair investigation at the lower court.
Smiling as she left the courtroom, plaintiff Keo Near said she was thrilled that charges were re-filed.
But, the 19-year-old continued, “I’m not so confident that they have returned the case to Svay Rieng court.”
Asked whether he was concerned that the decision would simply result in the same outcome, the prosecutor, who appealed the December decision to drop the charges, said it was out of his hands.
“I cannot predict whether the provincial court will decide to drop the accusation again, because it is a discretion of judges,” said prosecutor general Ouk Savuth.
Svay Rieng court chief Pich Choeut declined to comment, saying he hadn’t yet received the case file.
More than a year after a bullet pierced her lung as she and 6,000 others called for better working conditions, 21-year-old Buot Chenda said the outcome was a tentative step forward.
“The suspect who shot us has to be punished.”
She and others, however, remained disappointed that the “unintentional” charge was used, rather than a stronger – and more likely accurate, many argue – “intentional” charge.
“The result is too small, because it’s just the accusation of causing unintentional injury. It’s not right,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.
In a joint statement released yesterday, rights groups Adhoc and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee said they were “concerned” by the court’s decision and urged transparency.
“This process should be transparent and offer guarantees of independence and rights of the defence if it is to provide justice for the victims and demonstrate that the rich and powerful cannot act with impunity when accused of grave crimes,” it reads.