PHNOM PENH —
Chhouk Bandith, the former city governor who fired into a crowd of demonstrators in 2012, injuring three women, has been apprehended. He will begin serving an 18-month prison sentence that was delivered while he was at large.
But rights activists and union leaders say his surrender and detention have less to do with justice than with the ruling party starting to worry its popularity is sliding. His surrender comes only after Prime Minister Hun Sen called on police to arrest him—as well as a group of opposition activists wanted for violence in demonstrations in July 2014.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the rights group Licadho, said Chhouk Bandith would not have accepted his sentence without Hun Sen’s call for his arrest.
“We think that this is related to building popularity through political means,” Am Sam Ath said. “They don’t want to be criticized because arrests were made for only one side.”
Authorities have been making arrests of activists wanted in connection to the July 2014 arrests since a public call made by Hun Sen and following the guilty verdicts of pro-opposition activists, who face up to 20 years in jail as a result.
Ath Thorn, head of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that the government appears to be trying to show Cambodians that it is bringing equity to the law. And it could be seen as a warning to other government leaders against following Chhouk Bandith’s example.
“No matter who you are, you must take responsibility before the law if you harm others physically or violate the rights of others,” he said. However, the arrest of high-ranking government officials is not the norm, he said.
Chin Malin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said the jailing of Chhouk Bandith had nothing to do with politics. “This case was not involved with pressure or the violation of judicial power,” he said. Chhouk Bandith was properly tried and convicted by the courts, and it became up to the executive branch of government to make an arrest. Hun Sen’s call for his arrest was not, then, interference in a court matter, he said.
Still, Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said that Hun Sen’s call for Chhouk Bandith’s arrest showed that there was no government support for him.
Meanwhile, the victims of the shooting, who had feared for their safety while the former governor was at large, said they were relieved to hear he was in jail. They had appealed to Hun Sen to enforce the court’s decision.
Nuth Sakhorn, 25, said her shooting injuries had cost a lot in medical treatment, and she has not been able to work full time. “I feel satisfied [with Chhouk Bandith in jail], because I don’t want to prolong this,” she said. “But I think the compensation offered me was very little.”