Five years on, Kem Ley still at heart of debate

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Supporters pay their last respect to Kem Ley at Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh in 2016. Hong Menea

The murder of social and political analyst Kem Ley remains a subject of debate as civil society organisations (CSOs) observed his death on July 10 and expressed scepticism of the handling of the case.

Ley was gunned down on the morning of July 10, 2016, while he was sitting in the StarMart at a Caltex gas station on the corner of Monivong Blvd and Mao Tse Tung Blvd in the capital’s Chamkarmon district.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, police arrested a purported perpetrator who called himself Chuob Samlab, which literally means “meet to kill” in Khmer, but was later identified as a former soldier named Oeut Ang.

In March of 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Ang to life in prison for premeditated murder along with additional charges of possession of a weapon without a permit.

In the five years since the murder, the topic has remained controversial and often debated, especially when the anniversary of Ley’s death arrives each year. Some NGOs and supporters of Ley continue to call on the government to find whoever was behind the murder.

In a joint statement on July 9, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said: “Today, CCHR and other CSOs reiterate our call for the government to create an independent commission of inquiry tasked with conducting an independent, impartial and effective investigation into the unlawful killing of human rights defender Kem Ley.”

The US embassy in Phnom Penh also expressed deep sorrow and condolences to Ley’s family while recalling his integrity, independence and optimism.

“We call on Cambodia to conduct an impartial and transparent investigation into his murder to achieve justice for Kem Ley and his family,” the embassy said.

To clarify the situation, Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin on July 11 discussed some of the legal aspects of the case with the press.

He said the state has the obligation to investigate and seek legal action on the basis of verifiable facts and must do so in a dispassionate manner that seeks justice rather than vengeance.

He said the groups demanding political justice were trying to use the death of Ley to score political points.

“Legal justice means that decisions are made based on the facts and the law in force, as well as the solid legal evidence and testimony that emerge from the authorities’ investigation,” he said.

Malin said that in criminal cases, if any of the parties involved cannot accept the court’s decision, they have the legal right to appeal the ruling, even after the decision has taken effect. However, all appeals must have strong evidence, arguments and testimony that is contrary to what the authorities official investigation found to support the claims.

“The group that has tried to politicise Dr Kem Ley’s death in the past have never exercised their legal rights and have done nothing other than make political statements, accusations, and criticisms that demean the authorities and cast doubt on their integrity without showing any contradictory evidence or solid legal basis.

“Instead, they require the authorities to seek out all of this contradictory evidence and for them to undermine their own investigation, which is contrary to the procedures and provisions of Cambodian Criminal Code, not to mention common sense,” Malin said.

He said some people had proposed an independent commission with the participation of foreigners to investigate the case, but such a proposal is not practical or legal.

“It’s impossible. It’s contrary to the Cambodian laws and Constitution, especially the principles of international law concerning the sovereignty of the state, which does not allow the creation of a [body of authority] to preside over a sovereign state,” he said.