Kong Raya outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. 

© 2019 VOD/Khan Leakhena
(New York) – Cambodian authorities should drop all charges and release people arrested for commemorating the third anniversary of the killing of the political commentator Kem Ley, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 10, 2016, the prominent critic of the government was fatally shot in broad daylight at a gas station in central Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government should revoke all restrictions on gatherings and other activities commemorating Kem Ley’s death and permit an independent investigation into the killing.

“The brazen daylight murder of Kem Ley three years ago sent shock waves throughout Cambodia that propelled tens of thousands of supporters to march from Phnom Penh to his home province of Takeo,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of permitting an independent investigation of allegations that this was a state-sponsored killing, the government has broken up commemorations and arrested activists.”

On July 9, 2019, Phnom Penh police arrested a student activist, Kong Raya, his wife, sister, and brother-in-law for printing T-shirts in Kem Ley’s memory and selling them on Facebook. The latter three were released after being forced to sign a “confession” that they would not repeat the act – a requirement that Cambodian authorities frequently impose on released activists. On July 11, Raya was charged with incitement and sent to pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1). In August 2015, Raya had been convicted of “incitement to commit a felony” for a Facebook post in which he called for a so-called “color revolution.”

On July 10, a group of Kem Ley supporters gathered at the Caltex gas station where Kem Ley was killed in 2016. About 50 members of various security forces surrounded them and prevented them from laying floral wreaths or drinking coffee at the station while wearing T-shirts depicting Kem Ley. Those wearing shirts were required to take them off or place other garments over them. The police arrested Soung Neak Poan, a student activist who had distributed posters calling for an end to extrajudicial killings. Soung Neak Poan refused to sign a pledge not to distribute posters. On July 12, Soung Neak Poan was charged with incitement to commit a felony and sent to pretrial detention at CC1.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) reported that security forces would not allow activists from Phnom Penh’s evicted Boeung Kak lake community to enter the gas station. Also that day, about 40 police officers in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district blocked approximately 20 members of the Grassroots Democracy Party as they were heading to Takeo province to commemorate Kem Ley’s death.

Police also monitored, disrupted, or canceled commemorations in other parts of the country, including Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Kandal, Battambang, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, and Tboung Khmum.

Following Kem Ley’s murder in 2016, the authorities arrested a former soldier, Oeuth Ang, who identified himself as “Choub Samlab” (“Meet to Kill”). On March 23, 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted him after a half-day trial of premeditated murder and illegal possession of a firearm and sentenced him to life in prison. The trial was widely criticized as falling short of international fair trial standards and for not providing clarity about who killed Kem Ley or who ordered the killing.

Kem Ley was killed amid a government crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, independent media, and the political opposition.

“Cambodia’s donors should call for the release of anyone charged for peaceful protests and renew demands for an independent investigation into Kem Ley’s killing,” Adams said. “A government with nothing to hide should allow this or expect to see protests every year on the anniversary of this atrocity.”