JOINT STATEMENT: Cambodian Civil Society Concerned at Appeal Court’s Decision to Reinvestigate Charges Against Chhouk Bandith at Provincial Court
Cambodian Civil Society Concerned at Appeal Court’s Decision to Reinvestigate Charges Against Chhouk Bandith at Provincial Court
Phnom Penh, 04 March 2013 – We, the undersigned civil society organizations, welcome the decision by the Cambodian Court of Appeal today to reopen criminal charges against former Bavet City Governor, Chhouk Bandith. However, we are concerned that the investigation will take place under the jurisdiction of Svay Rieng Provincial Court, which has proven once before that it may be susceptible to political pressure exerted by Mr. Bandith and his supporters. Given the evidence, we welcome the prospect of new investigation. This process should be transparent and offer guarantees of independence and rights of the defense 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.
Mr. Bandith had previously faced charges of causing “unintentional injury” – allegedly having opened fire into a crowd of demonstrating garment workers in Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in February 2012. These charges were dropped by the Svay Rieng Provincial Court, to the dismay of rights groups and national and international observers, but, in December 2012, the Prosecutor General of the Court of Appeal filed a request to reinstate the charges against Mr. Bandith. The hearing, which began on February 27, appeared to give hope to victims that their complaint would be given a fair inquiry.
We hereby call on the Svay Rieng Provincial Court, together with judicial authorities in Cambodia, to ensure that the reinvestigation into the case against Mr. Bundith is conducted to the highest fair trial standards.
Although innocent until proven guilty, the evidence against Chhouk Bandith is compelling, including the testimonies of several eyewitnesses. A meaningful investigation into the shootings is necessary not only to provide justice to the victims, but to assert the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia.
The importance of a free and fair trial is even more pronounced in the context of the growing use of the judiciary to harass activists, protesters and critics of the government. The decision comes just a day before the appeal hearing of journalist and pro-democracy activist Mam Sonando, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on politically motivated charges, while Yorm Bopha, a community activist from Boeung Kak Lake, remains in prison, sentenced to three years on incredibly shaky evidence.
The Case against Chhouk Bandith
On 20 February 2012, three female garment workers – Keo Ny, 19; Boun Chenda, 21; and Nuth Sokhorn, 23 – were shot and injured at a protest outside the Kaoway Sports Limited factory in Svay Rieng SEZ. The factory makes shoes for Puma, the German sportswear giant. Workers were striking for better conditions when Chhouk Bandith, then Bavet City Governor, allegedly stepped out of his car and fired into the protesting crowd.
Mr. Bandith was removed from his post after he reportedly confessed to the shooting at the Provincial Court on 15 March 2012. However, he walked free from the court on that day and has never been detained. He was later charged with causing “unintentional injuries”, which was widely derided given the nature of the alleged crime, which could have attracted the qualification of “attempted murder”.
On 19 December 2012, the Provincial Court decided to drop all charges against Mr. Bandith, despite the seriousness of the alleged crime, his previous confession, and numerous witnesses to the original incident. Instead, the court charged Sar Chantha, a lower-ranking police officer, with the triple shooting. It was later revealed that the Ministry of Justice had instigated a report by the Ministry of Interior on the alleged involvement of Sar Chantha in the shooting. According to witnesses, however, when the shooting happened Mr. Chantha was hundreds of meters away.
In a welcome development, Mr. Bandith was called to appear before the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh at the request of Ouk Savuth, the Prosecutor General, to decide whether criminal charges should be brought against him.
The hearing, which began on 27 February 2013, lasted three days and was closed to the public. On the first day, the victims were allowed to give their testimonies and reiterated the allegations against Mr. Bandith. One of the victims, Keo Ny, stated to the media that the court should punish Mr. Bandith “legally and make him pay compensation [claiming] he will threaten others if he is not imprisoned because of his power.” Chhouk Bandith admitted to having fired his gun at the protest, but claimed he only fired into the air. Numerous witnesses were reported to have told the court they heard gunshots, and one Bavet City police officer, Long Phorn, testified that he had seen Mr. Bandith shoot into the crowd and one woman fall down as a result.
In the afternoon of 4 March 2013, where neither the Accused nor his lawyer was present at the ruling, the Court of Appeal ordered the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to reinvestigate the case against Mr. Bandith. As of yet, nobody has had to answer for the triple shooting in Bavet City and justice remains elusive for the three women injured protesting for better working conditions.
Given the evidence, we welcome the prospect of new investigation. This process should be transparent and offer guarantees of independence and rights of the defense 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, and ensuring the poor are not left forgotten by Cambodia’s judicial system.
Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC)
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
For more information, please contact:
Mr. Ny Chakrya, Head of Human Rights Program, ADHOC: 011 274 959 (Khmer, English)
Mr. Neil Loughlin, Technical Assistant, ADHOC: 092 648 318; email@example.com (English)
Mr. Bunsak Suon, Executive Secretariat, CHRAC: 092 344 357; firstname.lastname@example.org (Khmer, English)