A man holds a portrait of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer", shot dead on July 10, as they attend a funeral procession to carry his body to his hometown, in Phnom Penh July 24, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters/Samrang Pring/File Photo
(New York) – Cambodian authorities have yet to carry out a credible, impartial investigation into the murder of prominent political commentator Dr. Kem Ley two years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should invite the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia to conduct an independent investigation and commit to act on its findings.

On July 10, 2016, Kem Ley was assassinated in broad daylight at a Caltex petrol station in Phnom Penh. The killing took place two days after he publicly criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abusing its power to accumulate vast personal wealth. Three days later, five UN human rights experts called for an investigation to “be conducted by an independent body with no ties to the government,” but the government has ignored their demand.

“Kem Ley apparently paid with his life for becoming a popular critic of massive corruption at the highest levels of government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Cambodian government claims to respect the rule of law, but since Kem Ley’s murder the authorities have ignored all investigative leads and harassed critics who demand justice.”

Kem Ley, 45, was the founder of the grassroots network Khmer for Khmer and a prominent political commentator who was a frequent critic of the government. The grassroots network had registered as the Grassroots Democracy Party with the intention of running during the June 2017 commune council elections. Kem Ley’s death and the subsequent funeral procession showed his popularity in the country, drawing tens of thousands of people onto the streets.

Kem Ley’s wife was seven months’ pregnant when he was shot. Due to threats against her and her children, they fled  the country in August 2016. The family was granted a special humanitarian visa by the Australian authorities on February 14, 2018.

The government claims to have resolved the case after a fundamentally flawed and farcical half-day trial on March 1, 2017 that raised more questions than it answered, Human Rights Watch said. A man named Oeuth Ang confessed to killing Kem Ley, whom he claimed owed him an unpaid debt of US$3,000. Evidence of the alleged debt was never produced by the prosecution, nor was any relationship between the two men established. The debt claim was strongly denied by both Kem Ley’s widow and Oeuth Ang’s wife. Video footage from the Caltex station where the killing occurred showed a possible suspect carrying an AK-47 assault weapon running after Oeuth Ang when he was escaping the scene.

Oeuth Ang was convicted of premeditated murder and the unauthorized possession of a weapon and sentenced to life imprisonment. Police and prosecutors did not investigate any other suspects or accomplices, despite evidence indicating their existence, and the lack of any motive for the killing.

Since Kem Ley’s murder, the Cambodia government has harassed individuals who have expressed doubts about the official version of events or offered alternative theories about who might have been behind Kem Ley’s killing. A number have been sued in Cambodia’s politically controlled courts. Hun Sen brought a criminal defamation suit against political commentator Kim Sok after he alluded in an interview on Radio Free Asia (RFA) to the involvement of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Kem Ley’s assassination. A court convicted Kim Sok of criminal defamation and incitement to commit a felony and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 8 million Cambodian Riel (US$2,000) to be paid to the government and 800 million Cambodian Riel ($200,000) in compensation to be paid to the CPP.

Sam Rainsy, the former leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Thak Lany, a former CNRP senator, were each slapped with lawsuits when they claimed that Hun Sen had ordered the murder of Kem Ley. Both have gone into exile.

“The past two decades are littered with dead critics of Hun Sen, yet the people who ordered these killings are never arrested, let alone prosecuted,” Adams said. “The UN and foreign donors should insist that this time is different and that Kem Ley’s killers are brought to justice.”