TAKEO PROVINCE, CAMBODIA —
Slain political commentator and government critic Kem Ley’s mother, Phok Se, 77, still wonders why her son was killed.
Se who lives in the popular political commentator’s hometown of Ang Takob, Tramkok district in Takeo province, about 80 kilometers from Phnom Penh, questions the story given by his alleged killer, Oueth Ang, who claimed the shooting was over a $3,000 debt.
“I don’t believe that my son borrowed anyone’s money. If he owed money, he would be asked to return [the money],” she told VOA Khmer while lying prostrate in front of Ley’s gravestone on a recent mid-afternoon.
“Why kill him? I want to find justice,” she said.
A photo of Ley adorns the house adjacent to a main road, surrounded by his writings. More photos of the deceased academic are dotted around a shrine in the house. A statue of Ley sits beside the building.
Se rarely leaves the grave site. Her son, Kem Rithisith, 46, who also lives at the house, approached.
“We open [the house] for people, both national and international visitors, to come to pay respect to him,” adding that some 50 visitors come to the house each weekend.
However, he said the local authorities have instructed him to report the number of people who come to pay their respects.
Statue of Kem Ley, a well-known analyst was installed in the Buddhist 100-day anniversary ceremony of the Kem Ley's murder that began on October 14, 2016. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)
“I have been asked by the village authority to record the number of people paying respect to Ley each day,” adding that he was not told the reason for the interest in visitors to the house.
Nhem Chhorn, the commune chief, said that there was no reason behind the request.
“I just want to know the statistics. I don’t do anything with that number, just to know,” he said.
An outspoken government critic and popular grassroots activist, Ley was gunned down on the morning of July 10 at a Caltex gas station in central Phnom Penh, prompting allegations of a political assassination.
Police quickly arrested a suspect near the scene of the killing, who claimed his name was Choub Samlab, which means “Meet Kill” in the Khmer language.
Later, the court, police and the press revealed his name was Oueth Ang, 43, who has been charged with premeditated murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm.
If found guilty, he could face a life sentence.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court in December ended its probe of the killing. However, rights groups and families say they don’t trust the courts and police and had tried to determine the truth.
Ley’s brother said that that he will not attend the trial because his family has not been invited and a security video of the murder has not been released by Caltex, which is owned by U.S. Corporation Chevron.
Caltex, a gas station where political analyst Kem Ley was shot on July 10, 2016. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
“I will go if there are other witnesses and evidence and the release of security camera footage for the public, and also if my family is invited to join,” Rithisith said.
“It should not be hard to find justice,” he said.
The footage is a key piece of evidence which rights groups, politicians and the public have urged the authorities to release.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been sued for defamation by Prime Minister Hun Sen over a speech where he claimed the government was behind the shooting, posted on his Facebook page last Friday that a U.S. court had granted him the right to subpoena Chevron to release the footage.
“I cannot say whether he [Ang] is the real killer. But if he is the real one, please show evidence, witnesses and the intention of the killing,” Rithisith said, adding that he does not believe that Ley was in debt.
Instead, he believes that “there is someone [else] behind the killing.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, urged the court and authorities to look for the true mastermind of the killing.
“He [Ang] may be the person who is the perpetrator. But the important thing is to know who ordered it and who paid for it. And that we don’t know. If [the] police was serious about it, they would be able to find them,” he said in an interview with VOA Khmer.
“No, I don’t think they intend to find the mastermind,” he added.
Adams also called for an “honest and independent investigation”.
Thousands of Cambodians pay their respects to Kem Ley, Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. ( Leng Len/VOA Khmer)
“This case is very strange, why somebody would shoot this person and then just walk out to be caught and have no plan to get away. That always seems surprising to me, I can’t understand,” he said.
General Khieu Sopheak, Ministry of Interior spokesman, declined to comment.
“Now it is under the court’s authority. I think I have no more comments,” he said.
Ly Sophanna, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman, said that the court would summon the accused, witnesses, experts and police to join the upcoming trial.
“The trial will listen to all the summoned people’s answers, get evidence checked and draw conclusions,” he said.
A security guard working for a company next to the murder scene, Heang Narith, 45, said that on that day he heard two shots from the station and then he saw a man running slowly along the street in front of him.
“It was said Kem Ley was killed, Kem Ley was killed. I went to see it. The perpetrator was running slowly in front of me but I did not do anything,” he said.
Oueth Ang, 43, was charged with murder of Kemy Ley and possession of an unlicensed firearm, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 10th, 2016. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)
When asked whether Ang was the man he had seen, Narith said: “Yes he was. He is the guy.”
“I want to ask [the court] to find who is behind him. He could not do it by himself, I think,” Narith said.
Another guard at a store close to the murder site said he saw a a man leaving the scene shortly after the shooting.
“Perhaps he is the real one, since his clothes look the same as I remembered,” he said.
Staff at the Caltex gas station have been asked not to talk about the shooting.
When asked, a receptionist at the station referred questions to management.
Another worker at the Caltex station said Ley was well-liked by staff there. “I filled gasoline for his car and he always gave me a tip,” the worker said. “He was friendly and humble.”
Ley’s killing came just days after he gave an interview about a report by Global Witness that alleged grand corruption on the part of Hun Sen and his family, leading many to believe he was killed for speaking out about the allegations.
A screenshot of Global Witness's Hostile Takeover cover. (Courtesy of Global Witness)
However, an investigation by Al Jazeera suggested that the planning for the murder may have been in motion before the release of the report.
Many Cambodians have interpreted the killing as a warning against being too critical of the regime.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday sued an analyst, Kem Sok, for critical comments he made recently.
Adams of Human Rights Watch said that Hun Sen wanted to silence his critics.
Buth Bunteng, a Buddhist monk and a close friend of Ley, said that he believed Ang was hired as a hitman.
“There can be justice, but it is a made-up justice, not a real one,” he said.
“The investigation was closed quietly and relevant people are not allowed to join [the trial],” he said, adding that there should have been an “independent commission” including NGOs.
Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana and her five sons fled Cambodia in August, fearing for their safety. Their whereabouts are being kept secret while her asylum application to Australia is processed.