A Life Sentence in Cambodia, but Kem Ley’s Murder Is Far From Solved
New York Times | 23 March 2017
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian court sentenced a man to life in prison on Thursday for the brazen killing of a prominent government critic last year, a murder that has come to symbolize a growing crackdown on dissenting voices here.
Court monitors said the case was rife with troubling inconsistencies that judges or investigators had not questioned. Even the defendant’s name was in doubt.
The killing of Kem Ley, 46, in broad daylight in July has gripped Cambodia because of the prominence of its target and its chilling similarity to political assassinations of years past. The main opposition party branded it “an act of state terrorism,” while the authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, has sued people who suggested his government was behind it.
Mr. Kem Ley, a popular commentator who helped found a political party catering to farmers, was shot as he was having his morning coffee at a convenience store inside a gas station, at a busy intersection in central Phnom Penh. The man arrested, seemingly confused and brandishing an expensive Glock pistol, identified himself to the police as Chuob Somlab, an improbable moniker that means “Meet Kill.”
His trial this month was brief, with just 10 witnesses called to the stand, seven of whom were police officials. The defendant admitted killing Mr. Kem Ley, but glaring holes in his story went unchallenged, said Kingsley Abbott, a lawyer who observed the trial for the International Commission of Jurists.
“What was missing from the trial was a proper establishment of the truth,” Mr. Abbott said. “What happened was that the accused provided a version of events which were totally improbable, and they weren’t explored in any meaningful way.”
The defendant insisted in court that Chuob Somlab was his real name. He said that he was an unmarried orphan who grew up in a province on Cambodia’s western border and that he had earned the money to buy the Glock by working on a cassava plantation in Thailand.
But nearly every detail of that story was contradicted by his mother and his wife. They said he was neither an orphan nor a migrant worker but a former forest ranger and soldier from an entirely different province. They said they had never heard the name Chuob Somlab before, and they produced a fingerprinted identity card indicating that the man in the dock was really Oeuth Ang, 44.
The defendant said he was seeking revenge against Mr. Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt, though the families of both men said that was highly improbable and insisted the two had never met. No financial or telephone records were presented in court, nor were several crucial witnesses called, including a man the defendant named as Pou Lis (“Police” in Khmer). According to the defendant, that man introduced him to Mr. Kem Ley and even provided the commentator’s license plate number so the defendant could track him down.
And although the gas station where the killing took place was equipped with multiple surveillance cameras, most of the footage seems to have disappeared, with only a brief snippet from one of the cameras shown in court.
A group of Cambodians affiliated with the political opposition here have mounted a case in a United States court to force Chevron, which operates the gas station, to release the full footage. Judge Donna Ryu of the Northern District of California approved a subpoena in February ordering Chevron to turn the video over, but the company was given until the end of this month to respond.
Chevron, however, has said that the Cambodian police confiscated all the surveillance footage. “The digital video recorder along with the recording it contained were removed by the police within hours of the incident and have not been returned,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.
The police chief of Phnom Penh, Chuon Sovann, the head of the team investigating the killing, said Thursday that the police gave the footage to the court. He said he did not know what happened to it after that or why it was not shown during the trial. “They would do this in any country — there is nothing strange about it,” he said.
The inconsistencies in the gunman’s story were apparently accepted by Judge Leang Samnat, who said before announcing the verdict that it was clear the defendant had killed Mr. Kem Ley, whatever his name, background or occupation. Based on the footage from the convenience store, “the suspect on the video looks exactly the same as the suspect here,” he said.
In the days before his killing, Mr. Kem Ley gave radio interviews about a new Global Witness report, “Hostile Takeover,” that detailed the vast wealth amassed by the family of Mr. Hun Sen over his 30 years in power. Mr. Kem Ley was adept at communicating with rural Cambodians over the radio, deftly deploying the puns, double entendres and allegories that are staples of effective political communication in what is still overwhelmingly an oral culture.
“Kem Ley mastered the art of communication to perfection,” Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a lecturer at Lund University’s Center for East and South-East Asian Studies, wrote in an email.
He had also been campaigning against Vietnam’s supposed theft of borderlands — a highly delicate topic here — and writing a collection of mordant political fables.
They were set in a surreal version of Cambodia populated by talking animals and characters like Uncle Strong, Aunty the Farm’s Gone and Mr. Microfinance, a world in which an assassin named Meet Kill would fit right in. Mr. Kem Ley called them “political jokes,” but usually the joke was on the common people, who were continually being duped by tigers, lions and rapacious rulers.
In one, a man called Hostile Takeover accrues endless resources for himself and his family. Another, published the day before his killing, is set in a garden where “good and gentle animals are constantly killed” by a small cadre of thieving predators.
While Mr. Kem Ley always had a following, he has become a household name in the eight months since his death. His funeral procession attracted tens of thousands of mourners who marched through the streets of Phnom Penh, a display of collective anger that had not been seen since postelection protests in 2013. Photomontages featuring quotes and images of Mr. Kem Ley are widely shared on social media, collections of his fables have been printed and distributed, and absurd puns on Meet Kill’s name are a favorite new political joke at coffee shops.
“The sheer fact that it is so easy to share a picture on Facebook and get an instant response means that Kem Ley’s portrait has quickly become iconic: Sharing it means protesting against everything that is perceived to be wrong with Cambodia today,” Dr. Noren-Nilsson said.
“The social media age has created a kind of martyr that we hadn’t seen in Cambodia over the decades that the ruling party has been in power,” she added.
Questioning the official narrative of Mr. Kem Ley’s death, meanwhile, has become risky. This month, a group of students were briefly arrested after screening an Al Jazeera documentary that positioned the killing amid a broader wave of political violence directed at opposition voices.
Three people have been personally sued by Mr. Hun Sen for suggesting that the government was involved in the death. Two of them, including the former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, are now in exile, while a third was summarily jailed in February.
Mr. Kem Ley’s wife and five sons — the youngest born after he died — have fled Cambodia and applied for refugee status with the United Nations. His wife, Bou Rachana, said she was certain her husband had never met the man calling himself Meet Kill, much less received thousands of dollars from an impoverished migrant worker.
“I don’t believe in the Cambodian court system — and it’s not only me. The people of Cambodia don’t either,” she said, laughing.