Authorities in Cambodia have arrested the former governor of Takeo province in connection with the mysterious death of a National Assembly staffer he was romantically involved with, according to official sources.
Police initially said that Chev Sovathana, 36, had committed suicide after she was found hanged in her room in January, but reopened an investigation into the case when her family members said she may have been the victim of foul play.
Former Takeo governor Lay Vannak, 45, was taken into custody in connection with the case on Sunday afternoon in Roka Khnong commune, in the province’s Daun Keo township, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told RFA’s Khmer Service following his arrest.
“According to what we learned from witnesses, he ordered [others] to carry out the murder in a way that would disguise it as a suicide,” Khieu Sopheak said.
“Let the court decide the case—they may discover new information, and we will respect the court’s [decision].”
The former governor, who was also the head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Takeo province, will be questioned on Tuesday at the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Felonies.
Lay Vannak’s arrest comes a day after that of his brother, Takeo provincial deputy police chief Lay Narith, and four other suspects—Chev Sovathana’s maid, the maid’s husband, and drivers for the Lay brothers. The five were questioned by authorities on Sunday.
None of the six suspects have been officially charged in connection with the case, Phnom Penh Municipal Court president Tain Sun Lay told the government-aligned Fresh News media outlet.
In a statement posted on Facebook Saturday, Lay Vannak confirmed that he had been in a one-year affair with Chev Sovathana—a member of the CPP’s Youth group and widowed mother of three—but denied murdering her and suggested that she had killed herself when he ended the relationship.
“I asked her to terminate our relationship, which made her so angry that she became short-sighted and decided to commit suicide,” he wrote at the time.
“I entirely deny any accusation that my brother [Lay Narith] and I conspired to murder Chev Sovathana. My brother and I would never think of cruelly murdering her.”
Lay Vannak said that if he had been involved in killing his former lover, he “would have fled the country and sought political refuge in a foreign embassy.”
“Instead, I remain here and I will never run away from the CPP or my country,” he said, adding that he will be exonerated in court.
Lay Vannak, who is a member of the CPP’s Central Committee, was ousted as the head of Takeo province last week and assigned a portfolio within Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior. He was arrested shortly after attending a ceremony on Sunday to appoint his replacement, Ouch Phea.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted a source as saying that Prime Minister Hun Sen referenced Lay Vannak in a closed-door meeting with teachers on Sunday, noting that a “person who was assigned to be provincial governor had an affair … and did not keep it a secret affair,” and ordering the CPP’s working groups to refrain from holding him up as an example.
News of Chev Sovathana’s death has gained significant attention on social media, with many questioning why authorities initially concluded that she had committed suicide.
Hours before his arrest, Lay Vannak posted on Facebook that Chev Sovathana had “tried to kill herself on several occasions.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.