A court in Cambodia sentenced a former soldier to life in prison Thursday for killing prominent political analyst Kem Ley, prompting demands for an independent inquiry into the slaying many believe was not adequately investigated.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Oueth Ang—who calls himself Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill”—solely responsible for Kem Ley’s death, and guilty of illegal possession of a weapon and premeditated murder under Articles 490 and 200 of Cambodia’s penal code, respectively.
Kem Ley, 46, was gunned down on the morning of July 10, 2016 as he stopped for coffee in a Star Mart store at a gasoline station on a busy intersection in the capital.
Immediately following the 40-minute hearing to review the case, Judge Leang Samnath sent Oueth Ang to prison to begin serving his life sentence. According to the ruling, Oueth Ang can file an appeal if he is not satisfied with his sentence.
Speaking to reporters after the punishment was handed down, lawyer Yong Phanith, who was designated by the Cambodian Bar Association to represent Oueth Ang, said he plans to meet with his client in advance of any pursuit of an appeal.
But he indicated that he was unsatisfied with the ruling and urged the court to investigate the case further, noting that Oueth Ang was the only person arrested in connection with the murder, though witness testimony and evidence suggested others were involved.
“The court should investigate other involved individuals for [additional] convictions,” he said.
“According to the facts of this case, there are two other individuals that the court need to investigate—namely, Pou Lis and Chork, according to what we have learnt during the hearing.”
Pou Lis (the Khmer word for police) is the name of a man Oeuth Ang said had provided him with Kem Ley’s license plate number, and he said a Thai national named Chork sold him the gun he used in the killing.
Oueth Ang had confessed during his brief March 1 trial to shooting Kem Ley twice at blank point range after growing angry over an unpaid debt of U.S. $3,000, though his motive is not supported by physical evidence and has been widely dismissed by critics.
During the trial, court authorities reviewed blurry footage from the CCTV camera at the Star Mart showing the killing and other video clips from nearby street cameras showing the defendant running from the crime scene through several downtown intersections.
Footage from additional CCTV cameras inside the convenience store was confiscated by police and delivered to court authorities, but inexplicably never shown as evidence.
Most of the 10 people who delivered testimonies during the trial were police officers who read brief statements and were never comprehensively cross-examined, while several other potentially important witnesses were never brought to court.
Several inconsistencies in Oeuth Ang’s statements have also led to widespread skepticism over how the case was handled.
The defendant maintains he is Chuob Samlab, an orphan who never married and purchased the pistol he used to kill Kem Ley with money earned by working on a cassava plantation in Thailand, but his wife and mother presented an identification card to the court with his fingerprints on it, indicating he is Oueth Ang, a former soldier and forest ranger.
Oueth Ang’s claim that he loaned Kem Ley U.S. $3,000 for a job and a home has also been refuted by both his family and that of the victim, who say the two had never met, while the killer’s wife maintains he was too poor to lend out money.
Outside the court on Thursday, supporters of Kem Ley expressed their frustration with the ruling, calling it a move to divert criticism from authorities for failing to arrest the people responsible for plotting the analyst’s assassination.
Sor Sorn, a land activist from the Borei Keila community in Phnom Penh, told RFA’s Khmer Service she believed the court had been ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to issue a sentence and put an end to the proceedings without fully investigating the case.
“I cannot accept this ruling because the court is not independent,” she said.
“Not enough witnesses were summoned. Chuob Samlab never told the truth—he fabricated the story the entire time.”
Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for local rights group LICADHO, said convicting Oueth Ang was not enough, adding that the court must continue its investigation if it wants to eliminate public concerns over its handling of the case.
“Chuob Samlab could not have carried out such a murder against Kem Ley by himself,” he said.
“Therefore, relevant persons and those behind the scenes of this murder case should be brought to justice.”
Kem Ley had amassed a popular following because of his willingness to speak out against what he saw as political injustices under the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on a RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.
Hun Sen has sued for defamation three people he accuses of suggesting Kem Ley’s murder was planned by the CPP—former president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy, Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) Senator Thak Lany and political analyst Kim Sok. Sam Rainsy and Thak Lany are both in exile, and Kim Sok is in jail awaiting trial.
Kem Ley’s wife and five sons are no longer living in Cambodia and have applied for refugee status with the United Nations.
Calls for independent inquiry
In a joint statement released after Thursday’s sentencing, more than 60 local civil society organizations demanded an independent inquiry into Kem Ley’s murder, citing what they called an insufficient investigation of the case.
“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 statement read.
“In light of the inadequacies in the investigation into Dr. Kem Ley’s death, as well as in the trial proceedings, we … call for the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of his murder, in accordance with international best practices.”
The civil society groups said the commission should be comprised of experts from outside of Cambodia and have access to all available evidence, including all available CCTV footage.
“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,” the statement said.
Also on Thursday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch urged Cambodia to continue a probe into Kem Ley’s murder to address aspects of the case that “appear to have been inadequately investigated.”
In a joint statement, the three rights groups said the questionable nature of Oueth Ang’s identity and motive, as well as missing witnesses and CCTV footage, was insufficiently explored during the trial.
“The trial revealed that the investigation appeared to be deficient in several important respects,” said Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, who observed the trial.
“Until there is an independent, impartial and effective investigation to establish whether anyone else was involved in the killing, the victims of this serious crime, including Kem Ley’s wife and children, will be unable to obtain justice.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Sereyvuth Oung for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.