One year ago today, ex-Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith smiled as he sat before a judge at the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh on the first day of his trial for shooting and badly injuring three unarmed garment workers at a protest in Prey Veng one year prior.
Some four months later, Bandith was found guilty of “unintentional violence” – a charge widely decried by rights groups as too light – and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Bandith, however, was never arrested after the conviction came down and remains at large today, and could legally dodge prison forever if he keeps up his vanishing act for a few more years.
According to Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees Cambodia’s police forces, officers are still hunting for the elusive ex-governor, but leads are scarce.
“We would like to announce publicly that if anybody knows any news about Chhouk Bandith, please report to us, and we will give a reward and we keep [their identity] secret,” he said.
But Suon Bunsak, executive secretary for the NGO umbrella group Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, dismissed the police’s oft-repeated protestations as so much hot air yesterday.
“They say, ‘I’m looking for him, I’m looking for him’, but they never try,” Bunsak said.
“If it was somebody else besides him, that person would have been jailed before the trial,” he said.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said yesterday that if Bandith manages to stay away for five full years – the statute of limitations on misdemeanours like unintentional violence – he could legally resurface a free man.
“If he absconds for five years, he can come back freely,” Sam Oeun said, noting that such a practice is not uncommon in cases involving the rich and well-connected.
“If he has escaped from Cambodia and is in a safe place, his lawyer has no need to appeal, because after the statute of limitations, the decision is final.”
Victim Keo Near, meanwhile, said she had given up hope on seeing Bandith behind bars.
“Now, not only do we not receive justice, but we always get sick because of having been shot,” she said.