A rights group and an opposition lawmaker on Thursday called on a court in southeastern Cambodia to swiftly prosecute a former city governor who is the lone suspect in a shooting incident, as victims of the attack took the stand in court in connection with the case.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said the court should immediately arrest and try Chhouk Bandit, the former chief of Bavet city in Svay Rieng province, for his suspected role in the incident, which left three women injured as they took part in a factory strike last month.
Until the accused is charged and tried, “we can’t say justice has prevailed for the victims yet,” Moeun Tola said after the court heard testimony from two of the three victims.
One of the victims was unable to attend the hearing, as part of a court investigation process, due to lingering injuries sustained during the shooting.
Moeun Tola said that allowing Chhouk Bandit to escape with impunity would negatively affect the reputation of the Kaoway Sports Ltd. factory, where workers were striking for better conditions when the incident occurred.
It would also damage the reputations of the factory’s purchasers, which include German sportswear giant Puma, Mouen Tola said.
All three victims have filed criminal complaints against Bandit for premeditated murder, seeking nearly U.S. $100,000 in compensation for medical bills and other damages.
The victims said they had earlier been approached by a representative of Chhouk Bandit who offered them each a settlement of U.S. $1,000 to $2,500 to drop the case.
NGO officials and opposition legislators escorted the victims to the courthouse to appeal on their behalf.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua also urged the court to work independently of “outside interference.”
“The victims are suffering to see the suspect free from prison. The suspect continues to freely travel in and out of Bavet city,” Mu Sochua said.
“It appears as if the judicial process has been interfered with,” she said, adding that the court should prove otherwise to “ease any speculation that it has been under pressure.”
Chief prosecutor Hing Bunchea told RFA that he would summon Chhouk Bandit for a second time for questioning, although he declined to say when.
Hing Bunchea had met with Bandit two weeks ago, but allowed him to go free, telling reporters that he would not face any immediate charges, in a move that outraged NGOs and rights groups.
He said that the medical condition of the victims had not yet improved, which had also delayed the investigation of the case.
Lawyers for the victims complained that he had questioned their clients for too long, negatively affecting their health, the prosecutor said.
“I don’t know how to speed up … The lawyers said [the victims’ health deteriorated] because I asked too many questions, so how can I speed up [the trial process]?” he asked.
Factory workers Bun Chinda, Keo Nei, and Nuth Sakhorn, all aged between 18 and 23, suffered gunshot wounds as they participated in a strike by thousands of workers demanding better conditions at the Kaoway Sports Ltd. factory on Feb. 20.
All three were treated for their wounds at a nearby hospital.
Local rights groups said protesters had been demanding that management of the SEZ’s three factories raise their monthly wages by U.S. $10 per month to U.S. $71.
According to initial reports, an unidentified gunman dressed as a bodyguard opened fire on the demonstrators, and escaped from the scene despite a heavy police presence.
NGOs and rights groups say the shooting case has highlighted a culture of impunity among Cambodian officials implicated in scandals and the reluctance of Cambodian courts to find justice for the victims of attacks on labor activists.
Cambodia’s textile industry, which is the country’s third-largest currency earner after agriculture and tourism, employs more than 300,000 people, mostly women.
Strikes and protests are not uncommon at textile factories, where laborers often work long shifts for little pay.
Several murder cases of high-profile union leaders are still unresolved in Cambodia, and authorities have failed to bring suspects to trial.
Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea, whose brother Chea Mony is the current union leader, was gunned down in broad daylight in 2004.
His killers are still at large.
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.