Former powerful Cambodian governor Chhouk Bandith is on the run from the law more than a week after a court sentenced him to 18 months in jail over a shooting case amid claims by a local rights group that he is in hiding in a remote province.
Ministry of the Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak told local media Wednesday that authorities are still looking for the Bavet city ex-governor, who was convicted in absentia last Tuesday for unintentionally wounding three women in a factory shooting which rights groups decried as a reflection of the country’s culture of impunity.
“Authorities have not arrested Chhouk Bandith yet,” the spokesman said according to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s Deum Ampil newspaper, rejecting claims made earlier this week in some local media reports that the fugitive had been taken into custody.
The paper also quoted national police commission spokesman Kirt Chantarith as saying that Chhouk Bandith, who has appealed last week’s verdict, is on the run and confirming that authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest.
'Hiding in Mondulkiri'
But a representative for a local rights group told RFA, citing sources in the Ministry of the Interior, that Chhouk Bandith was hiding in eastern Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province under the protection of unnamed powerful officials there.
“Information from the Ministry of Interior says he is staying in the province at a powerful person’s house,” Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association’s provincial coordinator Sok Ratha told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“It is difficult for judicial police officers to search for and arrest him there,” he said.
At least four judicial police officers have traveled to Mondulkiri to apprehend Chhouk Bandith, who has been hiding in the province since Saturday, he said.
Mondulkiri province’s chief prosecutor Khut Sopheang rejected the claims, saying Chhouk Bandith is not in the province.
“I already checked, he is not here,” he told RFA.
Rights groups have decried the Svay Rieng court’s verdict as too lenient and urged authorities ensure Chhouk Bandith does not remain free while his appeal is pending.
The case against him over the February 2012 shooting had been dropped last year, but the charges were reinstated by Cambodia’s Appeals Court in March following outrage among rights groups.
Last week’s Svay Rieng court verdict ordered Chhouk Bandith to pay 38 million riel (U.S. $9,500) in compensation to the three victims, who were shot while joining a protest by thousands of workers against conditions in a Puma sportswear supplier factory.
The victims’ lawyer told RFA last week that they were unsatisfied with the ruling because they had wanted Chhouk Bandith to be tried for premeditated murder and asked for higher compensation for the injuries.
Some of the victims said they were concerned for their safety because Chhouk Bandith had not been taken into custody.
Chhouk Bandith has never been arrested over the case. He was briefly taken into custody for questioning last year and released after prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to prove he was the gunman.
Reported by Vann Vicha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.