In Cambodia on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today convicted Oeuth Ang – otherwise known as ‘Chuob Samlab’ – of the premeditated murder of prominent political analyst Dr. Kem Ley as well as illegal possession of a weapon under Articles 200 and 490 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. Presiding judge Leang Samnat sentenced Oeuth Ang to life imprisonment three weeks after a four-hour trial hearing. Civil society groups demand an independent inquiry, saying the investigation was inadequate and that the trail was a charade.
Sixty-six civil society organizations said in a joint statement that there must be an independent inquiry into Kem Ley’s death. Kem Ley was a strong advocate of democracy, good governance and human rights in Cambodia, who worked closely with grassroots movements. In 2014, Kem Ley founded the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, aimed at encouraging the formation of grassroots-based political parties across Cambodia.
Despite compelling evidence that Oeuth Ang was the gunman who shot and killed Kem Ley, the lack of transparency in the investigation of Kem Ley’s death, the brevity of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of Oeuth Ang’s arrest, raise serious concerns about the adequacy of this criminal process, the Cambodian and international NGOs said.
‘’Lack of independent investigations feeds into the rampant impunity inherent in Cambodia’s justice system. It is unsurprising that this engenders continuing distrust in Cambodia’s institutions,’’ said Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
Dr. Kem Ley, 46, was shot dead on the morning of July 10th at a petrol station café in the middle of Phnom Penh, where he was known to often have morning coffee. Oeuth Ang was arrested shortly after the shooting, about two kilometers from the murder scene, and charged with premeditated murder on July 12th. Upon his initial arrest, he gave his name as ‘’Chuob Samlab’’, which translates in English as ‘’Meet Kill’’, and confessed to the murder. He claimed it was over an unpaid debt of $3,000 – an allegation that has been widely rejected by both Dr. Kem Ley’s family and Oeuth Ang’s wife.
The Ministry of Interior also publicly stated in December through a spokesperson that it, too, did not believe this was plausible. Nevertheless, the investigation into Dr. Kem Ley’s murder drew to a close in less than six months after the killing with Oeuth Ang the sole suspect.
The groups called for the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of Kem Ley’s murder, in accordance with international best practices in light of the inadequacies in the investigation into Kem Ley’s death.
Throughout Oeuth Ang’s four-hour trial on March 1st, Oeuth Ang reiterated his claim that he had shot Dr. Kem Ley over the unpaid debt. This motive was not challenged by the trial judges – who appeared satisfied to accept Oeuth Ang as the sole perpetrator – despite its total lack of plausibility and the questionable credibility of Ang’s testimony. Statements by Oeuth Ang’s family and friends in the months preceding the trial cast further doubt on this explanation. The judgment given today failed to make any references to the debt, despite Oeuth Ang’s repeated claim that this was the sole motivation for the killing.
Kem Ley was often critical of Cambodia’s ruling party. Before he was killed, Kem Ley had commented on the business interests of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, reportedly worth at least US $200 million.
The trial showed extracts of CCTV footage taken from the Caltex petrol station during and after the shooting, but not of the period immediately before it. Further footage that was shown at the trial showed Oeuth Ang running down a pavement on Mao Tse Tung boulevard after the shooting, followed by a motorbike carrying a man openly carrying a rifle. At one point in the footage, another large motorbike – carrying the insignia of the National Police – changes direction to follow Oeuth Ang as well. Oeuth Ang briefly jumps on this motorbike, before dismounting and continuing to run down the street. This bizarre behavior remains without credible explanation, the groups said.
Oeuth Ang testified that he had met Dr. Kem Ley only once at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, arranged by an acquaintance from Thailand, who he named Pou Lis, at which he gave Kem Ley $3,000. Oueth Ang also claimed that he had bought the gun used to shoot Dr. Kem Ley in Thailand from a Thai national called Chak. Neither man was called as a witness, although they are reported to be under investigation in relation to the case.
A series of witnesses, mostly from the police, read out brief witness statements. There was no comprehensive cross-examination.
‘’A court is supposed to be inquisitive in order to uncover the truth. But the evidence showed, and the footage the prosecution chose not to show, left us with more questions than answers, which the court did not inquire into,’’ said Moeun Tola, Director of the Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL).
‘’This investigation was inadequate and the trial was a charade. We demand an independent inquiry with international assistance to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death, which will be the only way to achieve justice for his family and friends,’’ said Naly Pilorge, Deputy Director for Advocacy at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).
The obligation to carry out an effective investigation, as well as to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice, is a crucial element of the state’s obligation to respect the right to life, enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
Civil society said that in light of serious shortcomings with regards to the responsibility of the court to critically examine the evidence before it, and in order to ensure conformity with international best practices, an independent Commission of Inquiry is needed to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death.
They added that the Commission should be comprised of international experts from outside Cambodia, and have access to all available evidence, including all available CCTV footage: ‘’Given the inadequacies in the original investigation and trial, as described above, an independent Commission of Inquiry is now the only means by which to safeguard the independence and transparency of the investigation, comply with Cambodia’s obligation to fully investigate possible breaches of the right to life, and ultimately to find justice for the family of Dr. Kem Ley.’’
Kem Ley’s killing occurred amid a sharp deterioration in the space for fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past year. Civil society group members, opposition leaders and government critics have been arrested and subjected to judicial harassment, and in some cases, violence.
Cambodia’s deteriorating human rights situation has resulted in widespread international condemnation of the Cambodian authorities. The killing of Kem Ley has only added to concerns over the situation in Cambodia.
Civil society groups say that the Cambodian Government has a responsibility to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, civil society and government critics to freely operate without fear of retaliation and they are highly concerned that this space is under severe threat in Cambodia.
Political tensions are rising in Cambodia ahead of commune elections in June 2017 and national elections in 2018.