Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Five years after his murder, family and advocates still seeking justice for slain political commentator Kem Ley

Kem Ley's relatives pray near his body at a pagoda in Phnom Penh, picture taken on July 24, 2016. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Kem Ley's relatives pray near his body at a pagoda in Phnom Penh, picture taken on July 24, 2016. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

As they prepare for Saturday’s five-year anniversary of the murder of prominent political commentator Kem Ley, a broad coaltiion family members, friends and civil society groups of all kinds are calling on the government to provide “genuine justice” in a case that has drawn international attention.

Organizers will hold an online forum on July 10 to mark the official anniversary. Meanwhile, members of Ley’s family will also hold a small Buddhist ceremony in Takeo province, where the slain man made his home.

Ley was shot dead in 2016 while getting his morning coffee at the Caltex gas station at the Bokor intersection in central Phnom Penh. The killer, who initially identified himself as “Choub Samlab”, or “Meet to Kill”, claimed his motive was an unpaid debt of $3,000 that Ley supposedly owed him. The killer was later identified as Oeuth Ang, a man whose wife and mother said was a former soldier and forest ranger.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the killing, 45 civil society organizations announced Friday a renewed call for Cambodian authorities to create an independent Commission of Inquiry tasked with conducting an independent, impartial and effective investigation into Kem Ley’s death. These organizations noted in a statement there has been no established independent commission whether anyone else was involved in the killing. 

“To date, the Cambodian government has consistently failed to achieve justice for Kem Ley and his family,” read the statement.

The investigation and trial of Ang has been widely regarded as irregular at best, with prosecutors failing to establish if the killer had ever even met Ley, much less had lent him money. Pointing at the holes in the official narrative, critics maintain that Ang was a scapegoat for others. He was sentenced in March 2017 to life imprisonment for premeditated murder and for carrying or transporting a weapon without authorization.

Heng Kimhong, a research and advocacy program manager with the Cambodian Youth Network, said Saturday’s online forum will cover the legacy of Ley, who Kimhong said devoted his life to political reform and the defense of free speech.

“We consider Dr. Kem Ley as a symbol of freedom of expression,” Kimhong said. “He dared to speak the truth, instead of speaking to protect himself.”

He added the public cannot trust Ang’s narrative of the killing as stated in court and called on the government and judicial police to reveal full security camera footage of the murder.

However, National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told CamboJA that wasn’t going to happen, saying the court has already sentenced the real culprit based on sufficient evidence.

“We could not release the video at the Caltex convenience store because it is out of our jurisdiction,” Kim Khoeun said. “If the public still has doubts, please go to ask the court, I cannot answer instead.”

Still, in April 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began a new case stemming from the original murder trial, starting a second investigation even though the supposed killer was already behind bars. The additional case, which today is still in the hands of the investigating judge, was meant to determine who had introduced Ley and Ang and find how the shooter had procured his weapon.

Phnom Penh Court spokesperson Y Rin told CamboJA the investigation is still ongoing and its details cannot be disclosed to the public.

“It is an investigation process that needs to be kept secret. If you ask, and if I tell, how can we arrest [a suspect]?” he said, referring questions to the judicial police.

While investigators say they are looking into the details of the murder, Ley’s surviving relatives are left to wonder what might have led to that violent day five years ago.

Kem Rithiseth, a brother of Ley, said he didn’t believe the court narrative, stating that his brother didn’t even know Ang, much less owe him any money.

“For me, I can’t accept the point that I don’t have any evidence besides what was presented by the judicial police and court,” Rithiseth said. “The killer lived in Siem Reap province, they never knew each other — and the pistol he used, where did he buy that? We don’t have this evidence.”

With no answers yet, Rithiseth said his family will hold a small Buddhist ceremony on Saturday to commemorate his brother’s death.

The public are welcome to pay their respects where Ley is buried, he said, but must follow measures set by the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Some of Ley’s closest relatives are no longer in the country, for fear that violence may visit them next. Bou Rachana was married to Ley and, along with the couple’s children, left Cambodia after her husband’s murder to claim political asylum in Australia. She told CamboJA she does not believe the defendant Ang is the real killer.

“There is a high ranking person who has a powerful influence who did it,” Rachana said.

Many prominent civil society and human rights leaders also believe Ang was not acting alone.

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Ley’s murder is the country’s most emblematic case of impunity and is a constant reminder of the lack of justice that plagues Cambodian society, especially for crimes committed against critical voices. Sopheap said the investigation that followed the killing lacked thoroughness, independence and transparency.

“The impunity with which the murder of Kem Ley has been met means that his true killer may be roaming freely, able to continue perpetrating other serious crimes,” she said. “It also sends the message that it is tolerable to kill human rights defenders for their activism in Cambodia.”

Phil Roberton, deputy director Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the assassination marked the beginning of the end of Cambodia’s commitment to uphold human rights and democracy.

“No one believes for a second that scapegoat Oeuth Ang was anything more than a stooge set up to spout absurdities in court, and take the rap for a political killing,” Robertson said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said civil society groups who reject the court’s findings have a political agenda behind their calls for justice.

“We have seen these demands every year, they have no evidence to show the court was wrong,” he said, adding that he encouraged relevant parties to review the court’s case if they can’t accept the decision. “[Their] demand, it is just a political message that has no influence to reflect the law.” (Additional reporting by Sam Sopich)

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