PHNOM PENH —
The alleged killer of political commentator Kem Ley was sentenced to life at a Phnom Penh court on Thursday amid criticism over how the case was conducted.
Oeuth Ang was arrested on July 10 shortly after he allegedly gunned down Ley, a prominent government critic, at a Caltex gas station in Phnom Penh.
He subsequently claimed his name was Choub Somlab, which means “Meet to Kill” in Khmer, however, evidence presented in court confirmed his identity as Ang, whose family and friends say is a former military serviceman and monk.
Ang claimed to have killed Ley over a $3,000 debt, but the killing is widely believed to have been a political assassination.
Security camera footage played to the court during the hearing earlier this month raised further questions, as the government did not release all of the footage from the scene, and there were several aspects of the events that day that appeared in the footage which appeared to have not been investigated by the court.
Cambodians gather outside a convenience store where political analyst Kem Ley was gunned down, Sunday July 09, 2016, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Leng Len/VOA Khmer)
Yung Phanith, lawyer for the defense, said he had expected leniency for his client as he had confessed to the crime.
“According to the law, there should be a reduction in my client’s sentence regardless of how severe the charge is, because there were mitigating circumstances,” he said.
Phanith criticized investigators for not making efforts to track down two people suspected of involvement: a woman named Pu Lis, who allegedly introduced Ley to the suspect to arrange the supposed loan; and a man named by the court only as Chork, who allegedly sold the murder weapon to Ang.
“The court should have investigated and arrested the suspects who were involved,” Phanith said.
Bou Rachana, Ley’s wife, told VOA Khmer on Thursday, that she had “no faith in the justice system in Cambodia.”
“The security camera footage in the mini-mart where my husband was shot cannot be accepted,” she added.
Bou Rachana, wife of political analyst Kem Ley.
The owner of Caltex, U.S. oil giant Chevron, has until March 31 to appeal a decision in a U.S. court that could see it forced to release all of the footage from the crime scene.
On Wednesday, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who filed the suit against Chevron, requested that a decision against Ang be postponed until the proceedings against Chevron were concluded.
Three major international civil society groups - Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists - issued a statement following the sentencing, calling on the government to keep the case open.
“Cambodia should continue to investigate the killing of prominent political commentator Kem Ley in order to address key aspects of the case that appear to have been inadequately investigated,” the statement reads.
Kem Ley's mother, left, and family members stand alongside Kem Ley's statue in Takeo province, Sunday October 15, 2016. (Leng Len/VOA Khmer)
“The authorities’ failure to investigate so many clear gaps in the defendant’s story and the court’s unwillingness to examine them suggest that a quick conviction rather than uncovering all involved was the main concern,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kem Ley’s family have been outspoken in their disbelief that Oeuth Ang was solely responsible for the murder, and the trial’s conduct lends credence to their skepticism.”
Some 44 local civil society groups also demanded an independent inquiry into Ley’s death.
“This investigation was inadequate and the trial was a charade. We demand an independent inquiry with international assistance to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death, which will be the only way to achieve justice for his family and friends,’ said Naly Pilorge, a deputy director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.