Two female factory workers in eastern Cambodia filed lawsuits Tuesday accusing a former governor of premeditated murder after he became the sole suspect of a shooting case in which the duo were injured.
They are seeking from former Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandit compensation and reimbursements for medical bills incurred while undergoing treatment for bullet wounds in hospital.
Chhouk Bandit is at large after he was summoned to appear in court on March 16 by prosecutors who named him the sole suspect in a Feb. 20 shooting during a mammoth strike by factory workers at the Manhattan Special Economic Zone in eastern Svay Rieng province.
The move came after Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an official sub-decree removing Chhouk Bandit from his post, but rights groups criticized the government, saying authorities had done too little too late in the investigation.
On Tuesday, the two injured factory workers, Bun Chenda and Nuth Sakhorn, slapped legal suits on the ex-governor in their bid to get compensation.
Bun Chenda’s brother, Bun Sina, filed a complaint on her behalf with the Svay Rieng provincial court, accusing Chhouk Bandit of premeditated murder and seeking U.S. $50,000 in damages.
“We are filing the lawsuit in pursuit of justice and compensation,” he said.
“We are seeking appropriate compensation because my sister can’t work normally due to her chest wound. One of her ribs was broken and her arm is still healing.”
Nuth Sakhorn also filed a lawsuit accusing Chhouk Bandit of premeditated murder. She is seeking U.S. $45,000 in compensation.
Last week, Bun Sina told RFA that a representative of Chhouk Bandit had offered the shooting victims U.S. $1,000 to $2,500 to drop any civil lawsuits against him. All victims refused the money.
After brief questioning last week, Chhouk Bandit was allowed to leave police custody and is nowhere to be found, despite being named the lone suspect in the case. Rights groups have said that authorities were afraid to arrest him because of his ties to high-ranking officials.
‘An air of impunity’
Cambodian Defenders Project Director Sok Sam Oeun told RFA that the suspect must undergo prosecution, adding that according to Cambodia’s new penal code, the punishment for attempted murder is equal to that of murder.
He said that the authorities were responsible for bringing the perpetrator to justice regardless of whether the civil lawsuits were approved by the court.
“Even if there are no lawsuits it doesn’t mean the suspect should escape the law,” he said.
“The police must investigate and the court must prosecute the suspect.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said he was saddened to see Chhouk Bandit out of police custody some 20 days after the incident occurred.
He said that the delay in detaining the suspect will allow him to flee the country and will create an air of impunity in the case.
He noted that several murder cases of high-profile union leaders are yet unresolved in Cambodia and that authorities had failed to bring those suspects to trial.
“The delay has negatively affected the country’s reputation in the international community and amongst buyers [of textiles],” he said, adding that Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight in 2004 and his killers are still at large.
“This is a serious concern. It will seriously affect our country.”
The shooting incident took place on Feb. 20 outside the premises of the Kaoway Sports Ltd. factory, a supplier of textiles to German sportswear giant Puma, leaving three female workers injured—one critically.
According to initial reports, an unidentified gunman dressed as a bodyguard opened fire at a demonstration attended by nearly 1,000 workers from three different factories who had been protesting for better working conditions, but escaped from the scene despite a heavy police presence.
The three female employees, aged 18 to 23, were all treated at a nearby hospital for upper body wounds.
Van Sou Ieng, Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), told RFA that whoever had shot the women was responding to “violence and vandalism” on the part of the protesters.
“I have no evidence. I don’t know who the shooter is,” Van Sou Ieng said.
However, he said, the suspect would be prosecuted according to the law.
“If there wasn’t any violence or damage to property, there wouldn’t have been any incident,” he said.
He urged the union and workers to follow labor laws during strikes.
“Because of the violent strike, someone fired bullets into the air. If there hadn’t been any violence, damage inflicted on the factory, or mob action, there would never have been any bullets fired or victims,” he said.
“We call on the government and the buyers not to incite the workers into attacking private property so that law and order can be maintained for everyone. My conclusion is that the government should investigate both events to determine who instigated the violence.”
He also said that police had fired warning shots into the air to calm the protesters.
“Police intervention actually helped stop the violence against the properties and they had to shoot into the air,” he said.
Last week, a consortium of leading clothing retailers, including Puma, Gap, and H&M, called on the Cambodian government to “conduct a full and transparent investigation” into the shooting “and [to] hold those responsible for injuring workers accountable” in a letter to the country’s Ministry of Commerce.
Reported by Neang Ieng and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.