PHNOM PENH —
The family of slain political commentator Kem Ley have called for a renewed investigation into the circumstances surrounding his murder following the release of security camera footage purporting to show the killer fleeing the scene of the crime.
Ley was shot July 10 at a Caltex gas station in central Phnom Penh where he had stopped for his morning coffee. The edited security camera footage was released earlier this month during the trial of his alleged killer, Oeut Ang, 43, also known as Choub Samlab.
Following the publication of the footage by a pro-government local media outlet, numerous questions have been raised about its contents, which Ley’s family argues is grounds for further scrutiny of the case.
“It’s an organized performance and not true,” Ley’s brother, Kem Rithisith, 46, told VOA Khmer. “I need a clearer investigation,” he said after viewing the footage, which he said was “insufficient” to conclude Ley’s killer acted alone.
At a four-hour hearing on March 1, two videos were played to the court. The first showed a man in a dark blue shirt and red baseball cap loitering in an aisle in the Caltex station before seemingly pulling out a pistol and aiming it at a man wearing a red shirt, similar to the one worn by Ley on the day he died, but whose face was not in frame.
The second clip showed the apparent aftermath of the killing, with the suspect fleeing east along Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, crossing Norodom Boulevard, and heading north on Sothearos Boulevard.
Lim Cheavutha, CEO of Fresh News, the online news website that first published the footage, declined to reveal the source of the videos.
“I got it from a very trusted source and the video is the same video that my reporter watched at the hearing,” he said.
The Fresh News video was widely viewed and shared by Cambodians on social media, prompting more questions than answers.
Many social media users noted that the time stamps on the videos were apparently inconsistent, that the actual shooting was not on the tapes, nor was footage of the alleged killer entering the premises, Rithisith said.
Rithisith also questioned an apparent disparity between what the shooter in the videos was wearing compared with a photo released of the suspect by police after his arrest - in the footage the shooter’s shoes appear to have a large white stripe on the sole, whereas in the photo, apparently taken on the same day, the suspect wore plain black dress shoes.
“If this is all of the videos, why not just release it in the first place? Why keep it for nearly a year?” asked Rithisith.
Prior to the release of the video, the former opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, had sought to take legal action in a U.S. Court against Chevron to seek the release of the footage, as Caltex is owned by the U.S. oil giant.
Rithisith also called on authorities to investigate the presence of a white Land Rover SUV and two motorbikes which followed the killer as he tried to escape the scene. At least one of the pursuers appeared to be armed with an AK-47-style assault rifle. Authorities later brushed off questions about the men following Ley, saying they were local off-duty police.
“We don’t hold out hope that the government and courts will pursue this further. And we can’t dig up proof, find witnesses, and the killer, ourselves,” Rithisith said.
Three gas station attendants who were at the Caltex station when Ley was shot said there were multiple security cameras that normally would have captured multiple angles of the killing scene.
“There are cameras, but they don’t want us to see. The police took the cameras,” one of the workers said.
Another Caltex staffer said it was hard to form a judgment based on the released footage as it was “only a fraction” of the story.
A third staffer who was serving coffee in the store when Ley was shot said the government had not released all of the footage from the scene.
Ang, who could face life in prison if he is found guilty, claimed to have killed Ley over a $3,000 debt, while it is widely believed that he was a hired assassin, paid to silence the outspoken government critic.
The case has revealed that Ang had bought a Glock pistol from a contact in Thailand to carry out the killing at a cost of $1,000, which Rithisith said raises further questions about how an out-of-work former soldier could save such a large amount of money.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at LICADHO, a local human rights group, urged the court to release all of the footage for analysis.
Ang has continued to deny his identity during the trial, insisting his name is Choub Samlab, which means “meet kill” in Khmer.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan and General Khieu Sopheak, interior ministry spokesman, declined to comment, saying they could not speak about ongoing legal proceedings.
“If media reports lead to any movement against the court’s decision, it is punishable,” Siphan said.
Ly Sophanna, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman, said: “The hearing showed the accused captured on security cameras at the Caltex gas station. The proof was taken from the scene and is truly scientific.”
However, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, agreed with Ley’s brother that the footage was inconclusive and raised too many questions.
“The people don’t trust the court because the court has never given any reasons to be trusted. The court has been a political tool of the government,” he said.
“I don’t think they intend to find the mastermind,” said Adams, who worked in Phnom Penh for several years in the 1990s. “This case is very strange. Why would somebody shoot this person and then just walk out to be caught and have no plan to get away? That seems surprising to me. I can’t understand.”
Ley’s killing came just days after he gave several interviews 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.
However, an investigation by Al Jazeera — the Doha-based, state-funded, international news broadcaster — that aired last month in a TV documentary, suggested that the planning for the murder may have been in motion before the release of the report, with people who know Ang saying he had met with members of the military in the weeks prior to the crime.
Many Cambodians have interpreted the killing as a warning to critics in the lead up to local elections in June and a general election next year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has sued analyst Kim Sok, Sam Rainsy, and an opposition senator, Thak Lany, for allegedly suggesting Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party was behind the murder.
Hun Sen has denied the claims.
Ley’s mother, Phok Se, 77, says she does not believe her son was killed because he was in debt.
“If he owed money, he would have been asked to return the money. Why kill him? I want to find justice.”