A Cambodian court charged Oueth Ang with premeditated murder on Wednesday for the execution-style killing of government critic Kem Ley, as international organizations including the U.N. called for a “proper” investigation into his death.
The alleged killer insists on being called Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill,” deputy prosecutor Ly Sophana told reporters, who were barred from the courtroom.
Court officials said the nickname would be used in documents for now, according to a report by the Associated Press. If convicted, Oueth Ang could be sentenced to life in prison.
Kem Ley was murdered on Sunday at a gas station convenience store that he often stopped at to talk with friends. He was shot twice at point-blank range.
Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding debt, but Oueth Ang’s wife says that’s impossible because the couple has no money.
"I don't believe the debt issue was the motive,” Hoeum Horth told AFP, explaining her shock at his alleged involvement. “Kem Ley is rich and we are poor."
Also charged on Wednesday was a man who allegedly sold the gun Oueth Ang used in the crime. While the man was not identified, Ly Sophana told reporters he was charged with illegal weapons trafficking.
The charges come as the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called for a thorough investigation into Kem Ley’s killing.
“The U.N. welcomes the government of Cambodia’s appeal to open an investigation and to arrest the suspect,” OHCHR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly told RFA’s Khmer Service via e-mail. “The U.N. urges the authorities to investigate this murder case properly, and they must ensure that those involved in Dr. Kem Ley’s murder be brought to trial and punished in accordance with the law.”
The OHCHR also called on Cambodian authorities to take steps to ensure the safety of human rights activists, politicians, and members of Cambodian civil society, in the run up to local and general elections set for 2017 and 2018.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Swiss organization dedicated to ensuring respect for international human rights standards through the law, urged Cambodian authorities to seek forensic help in the investigation.
There are already concerns about events that took place immediately after the killing which may have harmed the investigation, the organization said in a statement. A large crowd gathered after the shooting and refused to allow Kem Ley’s body to be transported in an official vehicle, possibly compromising the crime scene.
“Where it lacks capacity, Cambodia should seek technical assistance from states and international organizations, particularly in the specialized areas of closed circuit television and telecommunication data analysis which may assist in establishing the identification and movements of the perpetrator and whether he or she acted alone or with others,” said Kingsley Abbott, ICJ senior international legal adviser.
Police officials have said they recovered the closed circuit TV security cameras at the store where Kem Ley was killed.
While the police have a man in custody, there are still questions about his identity. In addition to the confusion surrounding his name, reports suggest that he was an employee of the Siem Reap Environment Department. Officials have dismissed the reports as false.
Phuong Lyna, head of the Siem Reap Environment Department, said the uniform, logo, and ID badge in photographs of Oueth Ang do not come from his department.
It appears that Oeuth Ang may have been on the staff of the nongovernmental organization Environmental Protection and Development Organization (EPDO).
One colleague, Oum Oeung, told RFA he had not seen the suspect for about a month. Six days prior to Kem Ley’s murder, though, he received a phone call from Oueth Ang, telling him that he was in Phnom Penh working as a soldier for $300.00 per month. Oum Oeung said he did not know what military unit Oeuth Ang may have joined.
“I said ‘Ah! You got a very good job,’” he told RFA. “Let find me one so that when I get old and retire I have a pension.”
A political backdrop
Tensions have been rising in Cambodia as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) look to continue their more than three decades in power.
Cambodia’s current political situation has seen Hun Sen throw opponents in jail, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy flee into exile, and Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president Kem Sokha hole up in the party headquarters to avoid arrest.
The ICJ’s Abbott also expressed concern about the investigation because Cambodia has a history of political violence.
“In the context of Cambodia’s long history of impunity in cases of allegedly politically motivated killings, and even though a suspect is already in custody, the authorities must continue the investigation in a transparent and methodical manner until all potential lines of inquiry have been exhausted,” he said.
Kem Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying she was afraid to stay in the country, fears for the safety of her four children and wants to leave for Australia, where people have made offers of support.
“[Before], we felt happy and comfortable living in the country, but now there is no safety and we are concerned about my family,” she said according to the report.
Bou Rachana is pregnant with the couple’s fifth child.
Reported by Zakariya Tin and Savyouth Hang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.