At times smiling and coolly confident, Bavet City’s former governor Chhouk Bundith on Wednesday attended an Appeal Court hearing to decide if he will be finally charged with shooting and injuring three women during a violent strike protest last year.
Reporters were prevented from entering the courtroom while lawyers and court officials declined to comment on the proceedings.
Appeal Court presiding Judge Khun Leang Meng said the court kept the controversial case closed to the public on the grounds the hearing was still “an investigation. It is not an entire trial.”
Seated on a bench facing the three judges on Wednesday, Mr. Bundith—who court documents claimed to be 38, but who looked several years older—could be seen through the courtroom’s Plexiglas door demonstrating what appeared to be his brandishing of a handgun during the violent events of February 20, 2012.
Mr. Bundith’s alleged shooting victims, Keo Nea, 19; Bun Chenda, 21; and Nuth Sakhorn, 23, sat just a few meters from their alleged assailant. When the women were questioned at the stand, Mr. Bundith leaned back against his bench and stared at them intently.
Ms. Nea later recounted that Mr. Bundith told the court that he had fired his personal pistol in the air, but claimed that he had no idea where his bullets went.
“Chhouk Bundith said he shot in the air and he did not shoot at the workers,” she said.
Mr. Bundith said “the workers were trying to fight him and they grabbed his hand so he did not know where the bullets went,” she added.
Ms. Nea told the court that one of Mr. Bundith’s bullets hit her in the right hand during the shooting at the Bavet City Special Economic Zone in Svay Rieng province.
“I want him to be imprisoned because if he is not in jail, in the future he will commit the same crime as before,” Ms. Nea said. “Right now, I live in constant fear.”
The Svay Rieng Provincial Court had initially levied the minor charge of causing unintentional injuries against Mr. Bundith for his role in the triple shooting. However, the court, without explanation, then dropped all charges against the CPP official. Instead, the court charged a Bavet City police officer, Sar Chantha, with the same minor offense in August, though Mr. Chantha has proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was not even armed on the day in question.
Amid intense public interest in the court case, the Appeal Court announced last month that it was carrying out a reinvestigation of Mr. Bundith under the orders of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana.
Outside the courtroom, more than 10 police officers from Bavet City observed the proceedings through the court’s Plexiglass doors. Long Phorn, deputy police chief of Bavet City’s Prasat commune, said he was about 7 meters away when his former boss, Mr. Bundith, opened fire at the protesters, and not up in the air.
“I heard gunshot sounds about six or seven times, and I looked and saw Chhouk Bundith carrying a pistol and I saw a young girl fall down and blood come out her mouth,” Mr. Phorn said, adding that he has been called by the court to give his account of the shooting.
Mr. Phorn also said that his law enforcement colleague, Mr. Chantha, should not have been charged with the crime, as none of the police officers at the demonstration carried their weapons.
“At that time, police did not have guns with them; only Chhouk Bundith had a pistol in his hand.”
Ms. Sakhorn, the 23-year-old victim of the shooting, said she was outraged by Mr. Bundith’s testimony.
“We don’t agree with [Mr. Bundith] because if he did not shoot at us, how did the bullet get inside my arm?” Ms. Sakhorn asked.
Before leaving in his Lexus at the end of the hearing, Mr. Bundith urged reporters to exercise patience.
“I will not speak until the final day. Wait a little bit and you will know how the hearing went,” he said.
Outside the Appeal Court, about 50 garment workers, tuk-tuk drivers and human rights activists held a demonstration in support of the three victims, holding up signs that read “Chhouk Bundith is the real shooter.”
“I think it is a great injustice for us normal people because Bundith has powerful people behind him to help him avoid his charges,” tuk-tuk driver Long Vuthy said.