Charges have been dropped against former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith – fingered by multiple eyewitnesses for the February shooting of three protesting garment workers – a lawyer in the case and Bandith himself said yesterday.
The deposed governor was in April charged with causing unintentional injuries for allegedly shooting three women during a protest at a Svay Rieng province special economic zone. Though numerous witnesses confirmed they had seen Bandith shooting into the crowd of demonstrators, he was never arrested but, instead, slapped with a charge widely decried as insufficient for the accusations he faced.
For months, the case bounced back and forth between the prosecutor and investigating judge, with both parties insisting certain details had to be clarified with the other. Yesterday, it appeared that game was over.
Bandith, who now works in the Svay Rieng provincial government, confirmed that the charges against him had been dropped but offered few hints as to why.
“I just heard that news too, but please speak to my lawyer. I cannot comment,” Bandith told the Post. His lawyer, Mao Sam Vutheary, declined to comment, saying she was too busy to talk.
Chin Linda, a defence lawyer representing two of the victims, said he learned the charges had been dropped only when checking in on the case yesterday morning.
“They did not tell us the reason why they dropped the charge against Chhouk Bandith, so I have to study this more,” he said, adding that the court refused to tell him when the decision had been made. Sar Chantha, the Bavet town penal police chief who was quietly named as a suspect and placed under court supervision in August, remained subject to possible charges, Linda said the court told him yesterday morning.
Investigating Judge Pich Chhert, who is also the provincial court president, chief prosecutor Hing Bun Chea, and multiple court clerks could not be reached for comment.
Weeks after the shooting, still recovering from the bullet that pierced her lung, 21-year-old Buot Chinda vowed she would see justice served. Nuth Sokhorn, 23, shot in the back during a protest of the factory – a supplier of sportswear giant Puma – that called for 50 cents a day for food and $10 a month for transportation, insisted she would not give up her fight. And 18-year-old Keo Near, who refused a buy-off of her complaint after being shot in the arm, swore to hold the perpetrators to account.
Reached by phone, a distraught Near said yesterday she was devastated by the decision.
“If this had happened to a relative of the judge, how would they feel about this outcome?” she asked. Despite the challenges, however, Near said she had no intention to drop the case. “I know it’s hard to get justice in this country against a powerful person, but I will continue to file complaints until the end of my life.”
For the rights workers and legal monitors following the case, the court’s final word following nine months of apparent stalling was both tragic and expected.
“I’m almost speechless,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak. “This guy walks out of the car, fires his gun into a crowd of workers, and gets to be a free man. Nothing is based on the implementation of the law.
“After 20 years and billions of [donor] dollars and all the push for the justice system to reform, impunity still rules today.”
Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson called the conclusion “an indictment of the entire Cambodian justice system”.
“Essentially, the idea is: buy time, let it drag out, and after a certain amount of time, you just whitewash it. He should have been charged with attempted murder in the first place. It’s a travesty of justice, another case of impunity running rampant.
If you know the right people, you can get away with anything,” said Robertson.
Originally implicated by none other than Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, Bandith nevertheless eluded both arrest and dismissal from the government. Calls and requests for comment to ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak went unanswered.
Other officials sought to distance the government from the case, denying the accusations laid by rights groups and insisting there was no executive meddling in the judiciary.
“The court is in the hands of the judge. The judge shall be liable, it’s not the government,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Ek Tha said the government position was “very clear”.
“We never support any government official who uses violence. No one is above the law . . . We are under the same rule of law.”
But for the victims, such claims ring hollow by now.
Her voice quavering with anger, Near insisted she would fight to the death if need be for justice. A beat later, she wavered.
“How can I find justice if the court is still under the control of powerful people?”