Cambodia’s prime minister has fired a district official nearly a week after he became a suspect in the shooting of protesting factory workers amid pressure from rights groups that he be detained pending trial.
Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub decree Thursday firing southeastern Svay Rieng province’s Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandit and appointing his deputy to replace him, according to a provincial official.
Svay Rieng Provincial Deputy Governor Men Vibol told RFA that Chhouk Bandit had been reassigned to work in the provincial office headquarters while awaiting his trial.
“The sub decree ordered a reshuffle of the Bavet city governor to work at the provincial headquarters,” he said, adding that the order ensured that Chhouk Bandit would not finish out his term with the government.
The reshuffle will be officially effective on March 9, Men Vibol said.
The firing came shortly after the provincial court issued a warrant on Thursday for Chhouk Bandit to appear before a judge March 16 on criminal charges. His whereabouts are currently unknown.
Chhouk Bandit was arrested last week and questioned briefly in connection with a shooting that left three workers hospitalized as they took part in protests for better labor conditions at a sportswear factory that supplies goods to German sportswear giant PUMA. He was later set free.
The shooting incident took place on Feb. 20 outside the premises of the Kaoway Sports Ltd. factory, located in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Bavet city, leaving three female workers injured, one critically.
An unidentified gunman dressed as a bodyguard opened fire on 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.
A brother of one of the victims injured in the shooting said a representative of Chhouk Bandit visited her in the hospital Wednesday and offered her two million riel (U.S. $500) to drop a lawsuit against him, but she refused.
Bun Sina said that after meeting with his sister, Bun Chenda, the representative went to meet with their family, offering twice as much money, but the family also refused.
Bun Sina insisted that the court carry out justice and prosecute Chhouk Bandit on behalf of his family and the other two victims.
Meanwhile, a rights group and an opposition lawmaker hit out at the Svay Rieng provincial court, saying Chhouk Bandit should have been arrested earlier when it became clear that he was the main suspect in the shooting. They said authorities were afraid to arrest him because of his ties to high-ranking officials.
‘He is being protected’
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator with Cambodian rights group LICADHO, said the court should have already arrested Chhouk Bandit because he is a suspect in a criminal offense involving deadly use of force.
“We urge the court to arrest the suspect and to prosecute him according to the law, avoiding any impunity,” he said.
“If the suspect in this case is set free, it would set a very bad example to other government officials who will allow this kind of culture.”
And opposition party lawmaker Mu Sochua insisted that Chhouk Bandit face prosecution, regardless of his affiliations.
“Why didn’t the authorities arrest the suspect immediately after the shooting?” Mu Sochua asked.
“When the shooting started, the police surrounded the suspect, but he walked freely back into his truck,” she said.
“The suspect is affiliated with an elite group. He is being protected and it is illegal.”
Provincial Deputy Governor Men Vibol declined to comment about the case, saying only that the court is working on an investigation.
Reported by Samean Yun and Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.