The Court of Appeal on Monday upheld the Svay Rieng Provincial Court’s verdict in the case of former Bavet City governor Chhouk Bundith, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for shooting three factory workers but has not spent a day in prison and remains at large.
The most recent verdict in the highly-politicized case comes more than 20 months after Chhouk Bundith, who was then-CPP governor of Bavet City, opened fire into a crowd of protesting workers at a special economic zone in Svay Rieng, injuring three women.
Since then, the ex-governor’s case has bounced back and forth between the provincial court and the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh while the suspect himself has remained a free man, protected from prosecution by his powerful friends in government.
After the provincial court in December dismissed all charges against Chhouk Bundith, despite many witnesses putting him at the scene of the shooting with a gun in his hand, the Appeal Court reopened the investigation following a direct request from the Justice Ministry to do so.
That request came to fruition Monday when Appeal Court presiding Judge Taing Sunlay announced that the court had decided to uphold the provincial court’s first verdict from June, when it sentenced the ex-governor to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay a total of $9,500 in compensation to the three victims.
But, Monday’s decision came with an interesting caveat: Chhouk Bundith had obviously shot the three women by accident.
“We have decided to uphold the Svay Rieng Provincial Court’s verdict,” Judge Sunlay said.
“The court understands that Chhouk Bundith did not intend to shoot the three workers because he did not know those workers,” the judge said.
Kay Visal, the ex-governor’s lawyer, remained defiant Monday, saying that his client, whose whereabouts the authorities say are unknown, had no case to answer.
“I am waiting to contact my client,” Mr. Visal said. “As the lawyer of the suspect, I wish to clarify that he is innocent so this court’s decision is in no way suitable for him.”
Nuth Sakhorn, who was shot in the back and arm by Chhouk Bundith, said at the court that she and the other two women who were shot will now appeal to the Supreme Court to levy more severe charges against their attacker.
“I feel disappointed with the Appeal Court when I heard this result because this court and the Svay Rieng Provincial Court’s decisions are the same,” she said by telephone.
Calling the case a “mockery” of a beleaguered judicial system, local rights group Adhoc said that Chhouk Bundith is being protected by his political connections.
“[Chhouk Bundith] has yet to spend a single day in prison and the light sentence handed down to him is likely more a reflection of his political connections than the gravity of the crime he committed,” Adhoc said in a statement.
“We cannot accept how the judicial system in Cambodia works, especially when it involves powerful suspects or if there is powerful individuals behind these suspects, because these people are always found innocent,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho.
(Additional reporting by Dene-Hern Chen)
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