A chorus of critics ranging from legal and media watchdogs to human rights activists are demanding an independent and credible investigation into the murder of Kem Ley, the Cambodian political commentator gunned down in broad daylight a year ago today.
Oeuth Ang was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, but doubts persist over whether he was acting alone or under orders. Kem Ley was shot execution style while enjoying a Sunday morning cup of coffee in Phnom Penh at his usual convenience store.
A crackdown on political dissent was emerging at the same time as the killing, and unsubstantiated allegations that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) might have been involved were cast by the then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has robustly rejected those accusations.
Regional human rights group Forum-Asia said the continuous harassment of human rights workers and government critics, combined with the adoption of repressive laws, had compromised the space for dissenting voices to express themselves without fear of retaliation or risk to their lives.
“Kem Ley’s assassination further increases the concern that no one deemed to be critical is safe in Cambodia,” it said, adding that several inconsistencies surrounding his case remain unaddressed.
“The inadequacy of the investigation is exemplified by the confusion surrounding the perpetrator’s identity and confession. Against this backdrop, suspicion of underlying political motives behind Ley’s murder remains strong,” it said in a statement.
Those sentiments were echoed by Phil Robertson, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, who noted Kem Ley’s death followed his public criticism about the unusual wealth of Hun Sen and his family, which was detailed in a report by Global Witness.
Robertson said the killing “was all about silencing a prominent critic and reiterating that speaking about such sensitive topics carries a deadly risk.”
“No one believes the story concocted by convicted killer Oeuth Ang, not even his wife and family, but in a justice system captured by the ruling CPP party such stories don’t require an iota of credibility for a conviction.”
Oeuth Ang insists he acted alone, saying his motive was an unpaid debt.
Kem Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, and their five young boys have reportedly been granted political asylum in Australia, following a request made after they fled to Bangkok in the wake of the killing.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights led an open letter to the Cambodian government, noting that even its own CPP members had cast doubts upon both Oeuth Ang’s motive and testimony claiming he was acting alone. The letter continued:
Given the fact that the killing occurred against a backdrop of escalating attacks on human rights defenders and the political opposition, and in the context of a well-documented history of killings of human rights defenders with impunity in Cambodia, it is imperative that the Commission of Inquiry be staffed by individuals, including legal experts and United Nations human rights officials, with no ties to the government.
Robertson also said that 164 NGOs from around the world want Cambodia to establish an independent and impartial Commission of Inquiry in line with the UN Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions.
He said Kem Ley’s murder would also emerge as an important election issue with the national ballot due by July next year.
“As Cambodia heads into national elections in 2018, the government’s commitment to human rights and rule of law will be judged with close attention to how it handles demands for the next steps in the Kem Ley case,” he said. “Oueth Ang is at best a scapegoat for others who are still at large.”
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt