The former governor of a Cambodian city was charged Thursday with causing “unintentional injury” to three female factory workers after being the lone suspect in a shooting incident that had drawn the intervention of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But rights groups contended that the charges leveled against Chhouk Bandit, ex-governor of Bavet city, had been diluted, saying he should have been charged with premeditated murder and criticizing court prosecutors for not applying the law to all Cambodians equally.
Hun Sen had issued a subdecree removing Chhouk Bandit as governor and appointing his deputy to replace him nearly a month after he allegedly fired into a crowd during a Feb. 20 demonstration over labor conditions at a textile plant in southeastern Cambodia.
But prosecutors appeared to have been dragging their feet on the case until Thursday, when they finally charged him over the incident.
Hing Bunchea, chief prosecutor for the Svay Rieng provincial court, said his investigations, which included testimony from the gunshot victims, showed that Chhouk Bandit had not intended to injure the three women.
“I have decided to charge him with the misdemeanor offense of ‘causing injury without intent’,” the prosecutor told the court.
“Based on the information I received, I decided to charge him with a misdemeanor because there is no evidence to show that he intended to cause injury to the three workers. This is based on the [testimonies of] victims and witnesses.”
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 in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone. Kaoway Sports Ltd. supplies footwear to German sportswear giant Puma.
All three were treated for their wounds at a nearby hospital.
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.
All three victims have filed criminal complaints against Chhouk 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 his representative who offered them each a settlement of U.S. $1,000 to $2,500 to drop the case.
Rights groups and workers unions slammed the prosecutors for pursuing only “light” charges against the former governor.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive of the Cambodian Defenders Project, told RFA that the ex-governor should have been charged with premeditated murder, accusing Hing Bunchea of ignoring the facts of the case and of wanting to let Chhouk Bandit off the hook.
“The prosecutor could only charge the ex-governor with a misdemeanor if the victims were armed,” Sok Sam Oeun said. “The victims were empty-handed and [Chhouk Bandit] was clearly in the wrong,” he said.
“This is not a case of causing injury. It is premeditated murder.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center echoed the call for a heavier charge.
He said that his own investigation had shown that the ex-governor had in fact intended to shoot into the crowd.
“At least two of the victims were shot from behind, so the shooting was not unintentional. [Chhouk Bandit] fired into a crowd of hundreds of workers,” he said.
“The court should charge him with intent to cause injury or premeditated murder.”
And Free Trade Union President Chea Mony said the court’s charge showed that a culture of lawlessness reigns in Cambodia, particularly in cases related to high-ranking officials who could “influence” the judicial system.
“This is a case that we should take into consideration. Chhouk Bandit’s action was a shooting spree,” said the union chief, whose own brother, former Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea, was gunned down in broad daylight in 2004. His killers are still at large.
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.
Reported by So Chhivi for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.