Rights groups and other organizations are calling on Cambodian authorities to create an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the death of a political commentator and human rights defender gunned down five years ago, while his wife says she has lost all hope that justice will be served in the case.
Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight on July 10, 2016, while having a morning coffee at a gas station minimarket in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, days after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
The prominent political analyst and fierce critic of strongman Hun Sen was also a trained physician and held a doctorate. He was 45 years old when he was killed and left behind four children and a pregnant widow.
Authorities charged former soldier Oeuth Ang with killing Kem Ley over an unpaid U.S. $3,000 debt and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017.
In May 2019, court officials rejected Oeuth Ang’s appeal for a sentence reduction and upheld his life imprisonment term, though many in the country see him as a scapegoat and reject the government’s story that he killed the pundit over money he was owed. The claim has been disputed by Kem Ley’s widow and Oeuth Ang’s wife.
“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,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement on Friday.
“The outlines of Cambodia’s current authoritarian dictatorship started with the blood of Kem Ley, and that's why the country’s leaders and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will ensure there will never be justice for Kem Ley in a Cambodian court,” he said.
Forty-five international and domestic NGOs, civil society groups, and trade unions issued a statement on Friday calling for a commission of inquiry to probe Kem Ley’s death, saying the Cambodian government has “consistently failed to achieve justice” for him and his family.
They pointed to several factors that were not adequately addressed during the trial, including what they said was an implausible explanation about the unpaid loan that prompted the shooting, the failure to interview a witness named by Oeuth Ang to corroborate his story, and the production in court of video footage from only one of several CCTV cameras at the gas station that likely captured the event.
They also noted that investigators failed to try to identify a man seen sitting with Kem Ley prior to the shooting and an individual who Oeuth Ang claimed fired a weapon at him as he fled the scene.
The groups also said investigators did not locate and interview the alleged seller of the murder weapon, examine Oeuth Ang’s background and possible ties to the military, or account for the identity of individuals — one of them apparently armed — seen in video footage pursuing the accused as he ran away.
“To date, there has been no independent, impartial and effective investigation to establish whether anyone else was involved in the killing,” said the statement signed by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and Mother Nature Cambodia, among other groups.
Kem Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, said she has lost hope for justice for her husband and family, especially as long as Cambodia remains under the leadership of Hun Sen, the autocratic prime minister who has ruled the Southeast Asian nation for more than 35 years.
“I demand that the government in Cambodia seek justice for the murder of my husband, but there is no hope that he [Hun Sen] will be able to make it happen,” she told RFA. “If he was able to bring justice to us, he would not have kept us waiting in vain like this for the past five years.”
Bou Rachana also called for justice in the murders of union leader Chea Vichea and environmentalist Chhut Wutty, who were both murdered more than 10 years ago.
“There is no justice for any of us,” she said. “Worse than that, they [the government] have stifled freedom of expression. As for the courts, they are all under [politicians’] orders, so we cannot obtain justice.”
Cambodians hold images of prominent government critic Kem Ley to mark the first anniversary of his death, at his mother's home in southern Cambodia's Takeo province, July 9, 2017. Credit: AFP
‘We have to move forward’
Kien Ponlok, secretary-general of the Cambodian Federation of Intellectual Students, said that if the government wants to demonstrate transparency in the case and truly seek justice for Kem Ley, it must release the full CCTV recordings at the minimarket where the pundit was gunned down to prove who really shot him.
“The previous showing of the CCTV footage was not clear and showed just a short action that looked like an arrangement,” he said. “Hopefully, the government will show the real video. It should not be concealed from the public.”
Unions and civil society leaders said they would commemorate the fifth anniversary of Kem Ley’s death in Buddhist ceremonies held at their respective headquarters on July 10, the day he was murdered.
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), a labor group comprising mostly of tuk-tuk drivers and motor-bike taxi driver, recalled that Kem Ley visited him in prison and encouraged him to carry on with his work.
“Brother Kem Ley brought me some food and told me that in general we social workers always encounter this, so we must not panic,” he said. “We shed tears, but after wiping the tears, we have to move forward together for the nation, for society, and for justice and innocent people.”
Vorn Pov was arrested in 2014 and charged with “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” during a protest for a higher increase in the minimum wage for garment plant workers outside a factory in Phnom Penh that resulted in a deadly crackdown on striking laborers.
Ten institutions and organizations, including community networks in the provinces, also planned to hold religious ceremonies dedicated to Kem Ley, while leaders of civil society groups, trade unions, and development associations are holding a live online chat program on the topic “Justice For All” on Facebook, he said.
Bou Rachana, who lives in Australia, and other Cambodians abroad said they will mark the anniversary of Kem Ley’s death on Saturday.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the human rights monitor Licadho, said that Kem Ley’s heroism cannot be forgotten. He recalled that a month before the pundit’s assassination, Kem Ley visited him at Licadho’s office and said that even though his work was challenging, he had to remain steadfast and not flee the country in the face of threats, even if he was beaten, tortured, or imprisoned.
“He said the important thing was to advise, educate, and explain things to the people so they can understand problems, [including those] of democracy and other social issues,” Am Sam Ath said. “No one can forget how much he sacrificed.”
A spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court recently told local media that Kem Ley’s murder is still under investigation. Many activists say no progress has been made, however.
“Another year has passed without one iota of progress in uncovering the real masterminds behind the assassination of Kem Ley,” Robertson said.
“The government claims that investigations are ongoing, but the reality is that as soon as scapegoat Oeuth Ang was convicted, there was going to be no more progress as long as the Cambodian government and courts are involved,” he said.
Robertson noted that activists seeking to commemorate the anniversary of Kem Ley’s killing have faced harassment and abuse from authorities in the past.
“From PM Hun Sen on down, there is zero political will to pursue the Kem Ley case any further,” Robertson said, urging the international community to persuade the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry with support from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to probe the murder.