Scores of nongovernmental organizations on Friday denounced Cambodia’s “unjustified” use of security personnel to harass supporters marking the third anniversary of political commentator Kem Ley’s murder and called for the immediate release of two activists charged in connection with the event.
Kem Ley was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh, days after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt. In May, Cambodia’s Supreme Court rejected Oeuth Ang’s appeal for reduction of sentence and upheld his life imprisonment term.
On Wednesday, youth activists, students, and representatives of unions and civil society gathered at the Caltex station where Kem Ley was killed to drink coffee and lay wreaths to honor his memory, but were met with around 100 police and members of the security forces who prevented them from paying their respects—including by demanding that they remove T-shirts bearing the commentator’s image.
Authorities arrested youth activist Suong Neakpaon, 29, at the event, where he had been distributing leaflets that read “End extrajudicial killings,” and on Friday, Phnom Penh deputy prosecutor Che Song charged him with “incitement to commit a felony” under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code.
His arrest came a day after authorities in Phnom Penh detained youth activist Kong Raiya, 28, his wife Sok Srey Nich, her parents, and Kong Raiya’s nine-month-old baby for selling T-shirts bearing Kem Ley’s portrait and urging people to wear them to mark the anniversary of his murder.
Police later released Sok Srey Nich, her parents, and the baby, but charged Kong Raiya—an activist with the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—with “incitement to commit a felony.”
Both Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya are now in detention at the Phnom Penh Correctional Center awaiting trial.
On Friday, 86 NGOs issued a joint statement slamming the deployment of security forces to the event commemorating Kem Ley and demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the two charged men.
“Both men were arrested for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression,” the groups said, adding that the charges against them “effectively criminalise acts of remembrance of Kem Ley, such as the attending of commemorative ceremonies or the wearing of T-shirts with his image and quotations.”
“The accusation that a peaceful gathering merits a prison sentence is a serious and systematic threat to the little remaining space left for freedom of expression in the country.”
The groups also noted that authorities had imposed similar restrictions on Buddhist ceremonies to mark Kem Ley’s death in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng and Tboung Khmum provinces on Wednesday, telling supporters that they required prior permission to hold the events, and deploying a heavy police presence to monitor them when they went ahead.
“We reiterate our call for the government to respect the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 41 of the Cambodian Constitution and Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and call for the immediate and unconditional release of both Kong Raiya and Soung Neakpaon and the dropping of all charges against them,” they said.
Other demands for release
After Suong Neakpaon was arraigned on Friday, his lawyer Sam Sokong, who is also representing Kong Raiya, told RFA’s Khmer Service that distributing leaflets and offering condolences did not warrant charges of incitement to commit a felony.
“We can’t accept the charge because my client only went to pay respects to Kem Ley where he was killed,” he said.
“He was simply exercising his right to expression and assembly.”
Sam Sokong said that he plans to file a bail request for his client.
Seung Sengkarona, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, also suggested that Suong Neakpaon is innocent as he had simply called for an end to extrajudicial killings is in line with Cambodian law.
“The charges will cause a backlash against the authorities, because the activist was expressing support for the law as part of a bid to stop extrajudicial killings,” he said.
Soon after Kem Ley’s funeral, and fearing for their safety, his wife Bou Rachana—then pregnant—fled with her children from Cambodia to neighboring Thailand to seek asylum in a third country. They spent over a year and a half in Thailand before being granted permission to settle in Australia in February last year.
On Friday, Bou Rachana called on Cambodian authorities to release Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya.
“They did nothing wrong—only called for justice for my husband,” she told RFA.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin told RFA that the CNRP, which was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to topple the government, had “ordered” the two men to cause social unrest during the anniversary, and said they both were CNRP operatives.
“The CNRP was behind Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya, and ordered them to provoke social chaos and oppose the government,” he said, without providing details.
However, Kong Raiya’s wife, Sok Srey Nich, dismissed the allegations, saying her husband had not been in contact with the opposition party and was simply selling T-shirts to earn a living.
Calls for probe
The arrests of Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya had followed calls from two dozen NGOs and the U.S. Embassy for Cambodia’s government to establish an independent and impartial commission to investigate Kem Ley’s murder, with the NGOs citing a “flawed investigation” into his killing and a “lack of progress in subsequent investigations” of suspected accomplices.
Also on Friday, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia issued a statement noting that three years after Kem Ley’s death, “many questions remain unanswered,” and reiterated a call by U.N. experts at the time of his murder for an independent investigation to reverse a trend in Cambodia whereby activists and rights defenders face increasing restrictions to exercise human rights.
“All persons have the right to peaceful assembly and association, including peaceful commemoration of the death of public figures,” the statement said.
“Restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression must be limited and strictly defined and mere gestures or statements of support for public figures should not fall within such limitations.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.