Svay Rieng police on Saturday arrested the former deputy police chief of Bavet town in connection with a 2012 shooting that injured three protesting garment workers. The move did little to curtail the opinion of rights groups that the courts are protecting the actual shooter, former local governor Chhouk Bandith.
Ex-cop Sar Chantha’s arrest came after his December conviction for illegal gun possession, stemming from a February 20, 2012, scandal in which Bandith opened fire into a crowd of garment workers demonstrating at the Kaoway Sports factory, injuring three women.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s sentence of six months in prison and a $250 fine for Chantha, and an 18-month sentence with a fine of 38 million riel (about $9,500) for Bandith, who fled before being convicted of unintentional violence and has yet to be found by authorities.
The court on Saturday gave orders to Svay Rieng police to arrest and detain Chantha in provincial prison to serve his sentence, Svay Rieng provincial prosecutor Hing Bunchea said.
However, rights workers – who have long condemned the handling of the Bandith case, including his current freedom – saw ulterior motives in Chantha’s arrest.
“They basically tried to plan something to get it out of the public domain, and that’s the only reason [for the arrest],” Ou Virak, an independent analyst, said yesterday. “They probably promised [Chantha] that they’re going to treat him well in prison for six months; maybe even release him early, who knows? This is Cambodia, anything can happen.”
The approximately five months between Chantha’s sentencing by the Supreme Court and his arrest on Saturday was because police cannot take into custody a person who has been convicted of a crime until the prosecutor issues an order for them to do so, according to Sok Sam Oeun, an independent legal analyst.
No guidelines exist for how long, after a person is convicted of a crime, they must begin serving their sentence, he added.
“I think that the problem is administrative process, because even in practice right now for the enforcement of a final judgement, law enforcement waits for another order from the court [to make the arrest].”
“I think it is a problem with our court, because even when a judgement is complete, police cannot implement it.”
Virak yesterday said that the case has dragged on so long because no one has the political will to dole out punishment in a case that involves someone as well connected as Bandith.
Before the former Bavet district governor was convicted and sentenced in absentia, the Svay Rieng Provincial Court ended the investigation into the shooting and dropped all charges against him in December 2012, and effectively attempted to shift the charges of unintentional violence to Chantha.
The action infuriated victims, civil society and the public. The Court of Appeal ordered the lower court to reopen the case in March 2013. After an outcry from dozens of witness who had seen Bandith fire the shots, and strenuous denials from Chantha himself, the courts issued him the lesser charge of illegal gun possession.
Chantha had served as a scapegoat for Bandith since the case was taken up by the courts, Licadho coordinator in Svay Rieng, Nuth Bopinnaroath, said yesterday.
“In fact, they wanted to frame [Chantha] for shooting the workers, but civil society groups, legal experts and police witnesses intervened and said that he was not present at the time of the shooting,” Bopinnaroath said.
“I think it is very unfair to Chantha that they attempted to frame him for shooting those female workers.”
The lag time between Chantha’s conviction and detention and the fact that he and not Bandith was arrested came as no surprise to his attorney, Mon Keo Siven.
Keo Siven will speak to his client, and possibly seek a King’s pardon, if Chantha wishes him to do so, he said. Otherwise, Chantha will serve the time.
“If [Chantha] needs, I will submit a letter to the King to request a review within a month, but if he does not want to continue, he will serve the six months,” Siven said. “But even the victims support my client; only Chhouk Bandith was seen firing a gun.”