Several Cambodian eyewitnesses to the chase and apprehension of the man accused of killing popular political analyst Kem Ley inside a convenience store earlier this month describe the suspect as walking calmly away from the crime scene as police followed him at a distance before closing in.
Kem Ley was shot dead on July 10 inside a Star Mart store beside a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh and was buried in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province on Monday after a weekend funeral procession that drew around two million mourners.
Just days before he was gunned down, he had discussed on an RFA call-in show a report by the British nongovernmental organization Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of Prime Minister Hun Sen's family.
Ta Phane, a tuk-tuk taxi driver who was taking a nap at a gas station at a nearby intersection, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he woke up on the morning of the murder at 9 a.m. to shouts of “Thief! Thief!” and saw two men in black chasing another man toward the home of Hun To.
Many people believe Hun To—Hun Sen's nephew—is behind the murder of Kem Ley, a frequent critic of the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s party (CPP).
Sok Kheng, a security guard at a nearby Fare Mart convenience store, told RFA that he saw the suspect cross the intersection of Mao Tse-Tung and 63rd streets on the day of the murder
“I saw [him], but dared not do anything because he had a gun,” he said. “They were shouting ‘Thief! Thief!’ so I went there to see what was happening.”
The suspect, who was holding a gun under a small bag and shirt, walked slowly at first, then about a dozen people from places near the Caltex gas station started shouting and chasing him, he said.
“When they reached here [Fare Mart], they turned back, and about 10 minutes later police arrived and the SWAT team chased after him,” Sok Kheng said. “Only two SWAT team members rode motorbikes.”
The man he saw running away from the crime scene wore the same blue shirt as in the photo shown on the national news later that day, he said.
Towards the Russian embassy
Several tuk-tuk drivers who also witnessed the chase gave RFA similar accounts.
A driver named Heng Mab said he saw the suspect wearing a blue shirt with policemen far behind him.
The suspect had the same face and blue shirt as did the man in a photo later shown on Cambodian news the day of the murder, he said, but he questioned why the man had walked at a normal pace toward Russia’s embassy while police were pursuing him.
“If it weren’t for the police at the Russian embassy pointing a gun at the suspect and telling him to drop his gun, he might not have dropped it,” he said. “Then the police SWAT team who were riding motorbikes as they chased after him arrived and kicked him from behind.”
Inn Bona, a barber who works in a shop near the Svay Por Pe temple close to the Russian embassy, said he saw the suspect raise his right hand in which he held the gun.
“Police shouted to him to drop the gun, and he dropped it with no sign of protest,” he said. “At that time, I did not think he was wearing a hat. The shirt in the picture [shown on television] is the shirt he was wearing. The person who was arrested at that time is the same person I saw—the suspect shown on the news.”
Some employees from the Star Mart where the killing occurred also talked to RFA but refused to give their names for fear of reprisal.
One staff member said that just before the shooting occurred, a police car had pulled into a parking spot next to Kem Ley’s vehicle, but then disappeared immediately after he had been shot.
Another told RFA that the video camera that captured the assailant killing Kem Ley had produced clear high-quality images. Yet another employee said the convenience store did not experience an electrical blackout that day, despite statements by authorities to the contrary.
A Cambodian court has charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with premeditated murder for the execution-style killing. Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding $3,000 debt to Oeuth Ang, who gave his name as Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill.”
So far, authorities have half completed their investigation of the murder and will soon publicly disclose video of the crime taken from a security camera at the convenience store where he was killed, said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman of Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior on Thursday.
Authorities have confirmed that Chuob Samlab was the gunman, and the court will show the video to the suspect first once he gets a defense lawyer, he said.
“I would like to affirm that the murderer is the genuine one,” Khieu Sopheak said, adding that police have sent Kem Ley’s cell phones as evidence to the court trying the case.
Monk denies theft
In a related development, But Buntenh, the Buddhist monk who is rumored on social media and in local media reports to have stolen more than U.S. $30,000 from Kem Ley’s funeral fund donations and fleeing the country, denied that he took any money and said he went to Bangkok, Thailand, for medical treatment.
As a member of the Kem Ley funeral commission, But Buntenh helped arrange an elaborate public procession for the slain political pundit.
“The funeral commission worked very hard and tirelessly, especially during the funeral procession,” he said.
“We did not have time for proper meals for a few days and our bodies were worn down, especially for me because I only eat one meal per day,” he said. “So after the funeral, I went for a routine health check-up because I usually go every six months though I’ve had to cancel several appointments.”
He told RFA on Friday that he will return home after his treatment is completed to resume his duties as president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and work on projects to protect virgin forest area in northern Cambodia’s Prea Vihear province.
He said he will also help people in Kampong Cham province in the country’s central lowlands get identification cards so they can vote in the 2017 and 2018 elections, and organize a traditional 100-day funeral for Kem Ley.
Kem Ley’s brother and wife have defended But Buntenh from the theft accusations, saying that the funeral donations have been properly managed.
On Wednesday, The Phnom Penh Post reported that But Buntenh had gone into hiding after receiving a tip that he was being hunted by authorities, according to a friend and local media reports.
Reported by Vuthy Huot for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.