A former city governor who is the lone suspect in a shooting incident met with prosecutors Thursday after being at large for weeks but was set free, prompting protests by more than 30 NGOs demanding that he be arrested immediately for the suspected criminal offense.
Chhouk Bandit, of Bavet city in southeastern Svay Rieng province, was initially to report to the provincial court on Friday for questioning over the shooting but had been at large until Thursday.
In a surprise development, Chief prosecutor Hing Bunchea told reporters that he had met Bandit on Thursday ahead of his scheduled court appearance and that he would not face any immediate charges.
“I haven’t charged him with anything. This is just part of the investigation process,” he said, in the latest twist to the Feb. 20 shooting at a factory strike in Bavet city’s Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that left three female workers injured.
The decision to allow Chhouk Bandit to go free outraged NGOs and rights groups who Thursday released a joint statement calling on the central government to step in and take the suspect into custody.
“We are calling for justice to be served in accordance with the rule of law in regard to the brutal shooting of the three young female workers,” read the statement, signed by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and LICADHO, among others.
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, which supplies German sportswear giant Puma. 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.
“Many Cambodian garment workers already live a life of hardship, suffering, poverty, and uncertainty,” the statement read.
“The workers should receive protection and support from the state, not face further victimization through brutal acts of violence.”
The consortium of NGOs and rights groups cited an earlier statement by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng who had identified Chhouk Bundit as the shooter.
“We strongly urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to make the suspect’s arrest an utmost priority,” they wrote. “We also demand a proper trial and judgment in accordance with the law.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak said the government should not delay in arresting the suspect.
“This is a criminal case. He can’t use his money to shut people up,” Ou Virak said.
“We should also conduct an investigation into who is trying to convince the court to drop the case. This kind of impunity sets a bad example for the country.”
And LICADHO senior investigator Am Sam Ath warned that international buyers would balk at the idea of doing business in Cambodia if they see that the crime is not resolved properly.
“If the authorities do not arrest the suspect, it will set a very bad example. It means that the elite can do anything arbitrarily, and this will cause buyers and investors to suspend their orders.”
‘Culture of impunity’
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.
On Tuesday, two of the women injured in the attack brought formal lawsuits against the former governor, accusing him of premeditated murder and seeking nearly U.S. $100,000 in 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 pursuit of the case.
And 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.
Also last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub decree firing Chhouk Bandit as Bavet city governor and appointing his deputy to replace him.
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.
Days after the shooting, more than 2,000 workers from the Manhattan Textile and Garment Corp. in eastern Kampong Cham province threatened to block a national highway if the firm’s management did not implement better working conditions mandated by Cambodia’s Arbitration Council.
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 RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.