The Appeal Court on Monday reinstated the charge of causing unintentional injury against Chhouk Bundith, the former governor of Bavet City, who is accused of shooting three female garment factory workers during a protest outside a sport shoe factory in Bavet City last year.
But human rights groups criticized the Appeal Court’s three-judge panel for sending the case right back to the Svay Rieng Provincial Court, the very court that inexplicably dropped the shooting charge against Mr. Bundith in December despite eye witness accounts identifying the governor as the sole gunman.
As with last week’s hearings in the case, the Appeal Court on Monday again barred the public from the proceedings on the grounds that the hearing was merely part of an ongoing investigation and not a trial. But on leaving the courtroom, presiding Judge Khun Leang Meng paused to brief reporters on his decision to re-charge the government official.
The court, he said, “decided to charge him [Mr. Bundith] with unintentional injury and to send him to the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to be tried by the law.”
Being an investigation, Judge Leang Meng said the Appeal Court had no power to issue an arrest warrant for Mr. Bundith, who has remained free ever since the February 20, 2012, triple shooting of the three young women outside a Bavet City factory making shoes for the German sports brand Puma.
Neither Mr. Bundith nor his lawyer, Mao Samvutheary, appeared in court on Monday to hear the decision. An assistant to Ms. Samvutheary attended instead, but declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.
Mr. Bundith’s three alleged victims—Keo Nea, 19; Bun Chenda, 21; and Nuth Sakhorn, 23—all emerged from the courtroom with smiles and welcomed the judges’ decision.
“I think that he [Judge Leang Meng] has given us justice,” said Ms. Nea, who was struck by a bullet in the right arm in the shooting.
“I was excited when I heard that Chhouk Bundith would still be charged,” she said. “I cannot reject this decision because it is the judge’s decision, even though he is [only] charged with unintentional injury.”
Despite the celebratory tones expressed by the shooting victims, the decision did not sit so well with Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, who wanted to see the Appeal Court bring new charges against the former city governor.
“This is still not what we want because this case caused a lot of damage, so the charge should be intentional murder,” he said.
Local human rights groups Adhoc and the Cambodia Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), an umbrella organization of some 20 groups, criticized the judges for sending the case back to Svay Rieng province and the same court that dropped the charge against Mr. Bundith in December.
Mr. Bundith is also still employed as a government official in Svay Rieng province.
“We are concerned that the investigation will take place under the jurisdiction of Svay Rieng Provincial Court, which has proven once before that it may be susceptible to political pressure exerted by Mr. Bundith and his supporters,” CHRAC and Adhoc said in a joint statement.
The statement also called on the provincial court “to ensure that the reinvestigation into the case against Mr. Bundith is conducted to the highest fair trial standards.”
“A meaningful investigation into the shooting is necessary, not only to provide justice to the victims, but to assert the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia.”
While human rights workers on Monday said they took the Appeal Court’s decision to mean there would be a full reinvestigation into the case, Judge Leang Meng said that was not on the agenda.
“We sent this case to the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to go straight to trial; we did not send it for reinvestigation,” he said, declining to explain why.
Svay Rieng Provincial Court director Pech Chhoeut also said there would be no reinvestigation of Mr. Bundith.
“According to the law, we do not have the right to reinvestigate this case,” he said. “We will send it directly to trial.”
During hearings at the Appeal Court last week, Mr. Bundith admitted to the court that he had fired a pistol into the air during the protest, but he claimed that he had no idea where his bullets went.
More than 20 police officers who were on duty during the factory protest and the shooting of the three workers told the Appeal Court that they had heard gunshots, but did not see who had fired them.
However, one officer, Prasat commune deputy police chief Long Phorn, testified last week to seeing Mr. Bundith level his pistol at the demonstrating factory workers and fire into the crowd, hitting at least one person.
On Friday, Mr. Phorn said one of his superiors subsequently called him to criticize his testimony and that he felt concerned for his safety and that of his family. On Sunday, the officer retracted his claim of intimidation, without explanation, though his wife expressed fear of reprisal because of her husband’s court testimony.
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