PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian court on Monday upheld the conviction of a former politician who shot and wounded three garment workers in 2012 but has yet to serve any time behind bars in a case that has prompted outrage from rights groups.
Chhouk Bandith, former governor of Bavet town in southeastern Cambodia, has been on the run for months and did not show up for Monday’s ruling. A provincial court convicted him in absentia in June for the shooting at a factory protest that left three women seriously wounded.
The ruling by Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld Chhouk Bandith’s 18-month prison sentence for causing “unintentional injury” — a charge that rights groups have criticized as too lenient, arguing the politician should have faced a stiffened charge of attempted murder.
Judge Taing Sun Lay also upheld an order that Chhouk Bandith pay his victims 38 million riel ($9,500) in compensation, and he renewed calls for police to track down the fugitive politician so he can serve his sentence.
Chhouk Bandith was governor at the time of the shooting. He was demoted after being named the prime suspect, and then fled. The women, who suffered seriously wounds, were shot while demonstrating outside their factory with about 1,000 others for better working conditions and benefits.
Human rights groups say the failure to arrest Bandith and the light sentence demonstrate a culture of impunity for Cambodia’s political elite.
“The sentence is way too lenient,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “I think it is still a case of impunity. Chhouk Bandith is still not appearing in court, is still not in detention, and there is still no serious attempt to make an arrest.”
The lower court’s conviction followed more than a year of stalling and attempts to clear the politician’s name.
A prosecutor in December 2012 dropped the charges against Bandith, saying there was no evidence to prove he was the gunman. The move sparked outrage among rights groups and in March was overturned on appeal, paving the way for the June trial.