Two dozen nongovernmental organizations on Tuesday demanded that Cambodia’s government establish an independent and impartial commission to investigate the murder of prominent political commentator and rights campaigner Kem Ley, a day ahead of the third anniversary of his death.
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.
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.
The day of Oeuth Ang’s sentencing, Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International highlighted multiple issues they said had not been adequately investigated during his trial and called for a probe into Kem Ley’s killing that adheres to international standards.
On Tuesday, 21 other groups joined the three NGOs in reiterating that call and questioning why the government had failed to take meaningful action in the case.
“It has been three years since significant gaps were highlighted in the investigation and trial of Kem Ley’s case, which need to be remedied through an independent, impartial and effective investigation,” Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The lack of progress reflects a clear lack of political will by the Cambodian government towards meeting its obligations under international law to fully and impartially investigate a potentially unlawful death and protect the rights to life and to effective remedy.”
The 24 NGOs noted in Tuesday’s statement that 164 organizations had signed a joint letter to Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng calling for the creation of an independent Commission of Inquiry into Kem Ley’s case, citing the “flawed investigation” into his killing and “lack of progress in subsequent investigations” of suspected accomplices.
“The farcical trial of Oeuth Ang fell far short of international fair trial standards and raised more questions than answers about who was really behind the killing of a respected political analyst who dared to harshly criticize Prime Minister Hun Sen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“What’s known is Kem Ley’s family had to flee Cambodia out of fear and anyone who now alleges government involvement in the murder faces immediate harassment and retaliation.”
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.
Debbie Stothard, the secretary-general of Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said that Oeuth Ang’s trial “still points to a cover-up” in Kem Ley’s case.
“The Cambodian authorities’ ongoing failure to identify and prosecute the masterminds behind Kem Ley’s murder shows that an independent investigation is urgently needed to deliver justice to his family and to make progress towards ending impunity for the killing of human rights defenders in Cambodia,” she said.
Tuesday’s statement called Kem Ley’s killing “an alarming reminder of Cambodia’s culture of impunity” in cases of killings and harassment of rights defenders, labor leaders, journalists, members of the political opposition and others critical of Hun Sen’s regime.
“[Kem Ley] was unshaking in his commitment to the truth, and always continued to speak out against the corruption and injustice that was continuing to impact the lives of ordinary Cambodians,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
“Three years after his death, his legacy continues to live in the hearts of the Cambodian people.”
Sok Ey San, spokesman of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), dismissed Tuesday’s statement as “politically motivated” and said it was “filled with groundless allegations.”
The call by the 24 NGOs came as police in Phnom Penh provisionally charged youth activist Kong Raiya and three of his family members with “incitement to commit a felony” after arresting them for selling T-shirts bearing Kem Ley’s portrait and urging people to wear them on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his murder.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA’s Khmer Service that police arrested Kong Raiya, his wife and his parents-in-law on Tuesday along with his nine-month-old baby, who was later released to family members.
Kong Raiya—an activist with the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 18 months in jail for “incitement to commit a felony” after he posted a comment on his Facebook page that made reference to a color revolution in Cambodia.
The four are being held at the Phnom Penh Municipal Detention Center, Am Sam Ath said, adding that their arrests were “a threat” meant to deter Kem Ley’s supporters, who plan to lay wreaths on Wednesday at the Caltex station where he was killed.
RFA was unable to reach Phnom Penh Police Chief Sar Thet for comment on Tuesday, but Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said he was “unaware of the arrests.”
A group of youth supporters of Kem Ley told RFA the charges against Kong Raiya and his family members would not stop them from laying garlands at the Caltex station on Wednesday.
Ceremonies at risk
Also on Tuesday, authorities in Kompong Cham and Banteay Meanchey provinces warned villagers against holding Buddhist ceremonies to commemorate Kem Ley, according to CNRP activists, who told RFA that they plan to go ahead with the events anyway.
Kampong Cham CNRP activist Teng Sophea said that Veal Vong district chief Morn Hean warned her that higher level officials had told him to prevent villagers from holding the planned Buddhist ceremony on Wednesday, but that she had already invited guests and at least 100 people are expected to attend.
“I’ve decided to continue the ceremony—we can’t stop it at this point,” she said.
Morn Hean told RFA that because the CNRP activists in Kampong Cham are not relatives of Kem Ley, they “need to seek permission” to hold such an event.
Suon Heap, a CNRP activist in Banteay Meanchey, said he had received a similar warning from Ou Ambel district chief Thou Nakry, but that he expects around 200 villagers to show up for the ceremony in honor of Kem Ley.
Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator Sum Chankea told RFA Cambodians have the constitutional right to hold a religious ceremony, and suggested that Thou Nakry’s warning amounted to “political discrimination” against the opposition party.
“As Cambodians, the authorities should not regard people as enemies,” he said.
While CNRP activists in Kompong Cham and Banteay Meanchey proceed with plans to mark the Wednesday’s anniversary, Kem Ley’s family told RFA that they will honor him with a ceremony at the unfinished stupa where he was laid to rest in Takeo province.
“The ceremony is open to everyone,” Kem Ley’s brother Kem Rithisith said, adding that his family was asking for donations to complete the construction of the stupa.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.