An appeals court in Cambodia on Monday upheld the 18-month jail sentence of a former governor who remains on the run after being convicted for shooting and wounding three women garment workers protesting poor factory conditions last year.
The Svay Rieng Provincial Court had sentenced ex-Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandith in June to prison in absentia on charges of “unintentional injury” as a result of the shooting, which took place in February 2012 during the protest at a local factory supplying sportswear to clothing giant Puma.
On Monday, presiding judge Taing Sunlay dismissed the appeal by Chhouk Bandith—who was removed from his post following the shooting—at a hearing which only his lawyer and the legal team representing the three victims attended.
In addition to the 18 months in prison, the appeals court also upheld an order for the former governor to pay 38 million riel (U.S. $9,500) in compensation to the victims of the shooting.
The victims’ lawyers called on the court to amend the charge against Chhouk Bandith to attempted murder, which carries a much tougher sentence, but the judge refused, saying the former governor “didn’t mean to shoot the victims” because he did not know them and harbored no ill will against them.
“The shooting was an accident,” Taing Sunlay told the court.
Chhouk Bandith’s lawyer Kay Visal told reporters that his client is innocent and called the court’s verdict unjust.
“I don’t know yet whether my client will ask me to appeal the case to the Supreme Court,” the lawyer said of the once powerful ex-governor, who has been in hiding from authorities since his conviction in June.
“I am waiting for his call.”
Rights groups have said Chhouk Bandith is likely under the protection of top officials and decried his case as a reflection of Cambodia’s culture of impunity and corruption.
In July, a Phnom Penh-based newspaper collected donations from Cambodians across the country for a reward for information leading to the former governor’s arrest.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with local rights group Licadho, told reporters following Monday’s hearing that “justice has not been fully delivered to the victims yet.”
“The court has sentenced Chhouk Bandith to jail, but so far he remains at large,” he said, adding that the shooting was “intentional, not an accident” and calling for a stronger sentence.
“We have three victims—they were each shot at different places. It wasn’t an accident … this was a premeditated act,” Am Sam Ath said.
Shooting victim Bun Chenda told RFA’s Khmer Service she is living in fear because Chhouk Bandith remains at large.
“I am very disappointed with the court that it hasn’t apprehended Chhouk Bandith,” she said. “I am very disappointed with [how] everything [was handled].”
Many residents of Phnom Penh interviewed by RFA suggested that authorities might not be able to arrest Chhouk Bandith because he is being backed by top officials.
The shooting case against him had been dropped last year, but the charges were reinstated by Cambodia’s Appeals Court in March following outrage among rights groups.
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.