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Former Cambodian official convicted in absentia of shooting 3 garment workers, gets 18 months

A former Cambodian governor was convicted in absentia Tuesday of shooting and wounding three garment workers and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, an outcome that rights groups say highlights the impunity of the country's political elite.

Chhouk Bandith, former governor of Bavet town in southeastern Cambodia, has been on the run for months and was not present at his trial.

The former official fled after the Feb. 20 attack in which he was named the prime suspect in shooting three female protesters. The women were seriously wounded by the gunshots while demonstrating outside their factory with about 1,000 other workers for better working conditions and benefits.

A prosecutor in December 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 his trial.

On Tuesday, the Svay Rieng provincial court convicted Bandith of unintentionally wounding the protesters. Human rights groups had criticized the charge as too lenient and had called for a stiffened charge of attempted murder.

Rights groups welcomed the conviction but condemned the light sentence, saying that several witnesses saw Bandith open fire into the crowd of protesters.

"The sentence is little more than a slap on the wrist, and is emblematic of Cambodia's pervasive culture of impunity for the well-connected elite," said a joint statement issued by the Cambodian Community Legal Education Center and Licado, the League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

The rights groups called on authorities to find and arrest Bandith so that he can serve his sentence and pay restitution to the victims. Bandith was ordered to pay 38 million riel ($8,500) in compensation to the three women.

Cambodia's judiciary is widely regarded as corrupt and susceptible to political manipulation. International human rights groups accuse the government of using the judiciary to silence its critics and to attack human rights defenders and say the courts regularly fail to deliver justice to the country's people, particularly the poor.

Cambodia's garment industry is the main foreign exchange earner for the poor Southeast Asian country. It employs more than half a million workers, most of whom are women. Garment exports last year totaled $4.6 billion, up from $4.3 billion the previous year.