Kem Ley was a popular activist and political commentator known for his outspoken criticism of the ruling Cambodian People's Party ("CPP"). On 10 July 2016, he was shot dead at a petrol station cafe on Monivong Boulevard in central Phnom Penh.
On 23 March 2017, a man named Oeuth Ang - or 'Choub Samlab' ('Meet to Kill' in English), as he claimed to be called - was found guilty of premeditated murder and the unauthorized holding or transporting of weapons, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Oeuth Ang confessed to the murder, claiming that his motive was $3,000 allegedly owed by Kem Ley.
Whilst Oeuth Ang may have pulled the trigger, there are many unanswered questions surrounding the investigation and trial, leading many to believe that there may have been a mastermind behind the murder. Video footage from the murder scene revealed the suspicious circumstances of Oeuth Ang's escape, notably the fact that he was followed by a police officer who missed several opportunities to make an arrest, as well as the presence of a further unknown individual who pursued Oeuth Ang while armed with an AK-47 firearm.
The alleged motive of the killing has also been subjected to doubt, including from relatives of both Kem Ley and Oeuth Ang. Furthermore, in January 2017, a number of witness statements emerged stating that senior district and military officials had met with Oeuth Ang just a week before he killed Kem Ley. The investigating judge failed to adequately scrutinize these issues during the trial of Oeuth Ang.
Kem Ley had hinted that he was being targeted in the days leading up to his death. In June 2016, in a meeting with his close friend and fellow political analyst, he allegedly said, "[Friend], our lives are on the red line. We can be shot down and dead any time".
Kem Ley's death is part of a pattern and follows the murder of a number of high-profile government critics in recent years, including trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 and environmental activist Chut Wutty in 2012.
Timeline of Events
In June 2015, Kem Ley announced his initiative to set up the Khmer for Khmer Party, later named the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP). On 2 August, the GDP was formally established after its inaugural congress in Phnom Penh, but Kem Ley was not involved in any leadership role. The GDP was formed to promote a more democratic political system and is based on a bottom-up 'intraparty democracy' model, meaning that the party is comprised of grassroots, commune-level chapters.
From May 2016, Kem Ley had been working on what he called the ‘100 Nights Campaign’. During a vast tour of the country, including home stays with rural families, he sought to explore and document the deep-rooted problems faced by Cambodian society, such as economic land concessions granted to corporations. Since the start of the campaign, Kem Ley had reportedly been offered bribes of money and positions of power and had even been threatened with death.
On 7 July, Global Witness released a report titled 'Hostile Takeover'. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was criticized in this report for abusing his power to allow his family to take control of over one hundred corporations and accumulate vast amounts of wealth. It revealed a vast business empire, including interests in the mining, real estate, and gambling sectors. Kem Ley discussed this report just two days before his death in an interview with Radio Free Asia. Kem Ley stressed that the report was reliable, but didn't uncover the whole truth, suggesting that elites have much more control and power of the economy than it stated. He also criticized Hun Sen's 'culture of not taking responsibility', hinting that there would be no need for denial of the report's findings if these businesses were legitimate, fully compliant with applicable laws and regulations, and paid their taxes in full. Moreover, he argued that Hun Sen would not need to suppress the work of NGOs if he had nothing to hide.
On 10 July 2016 at 09:02, Kem Ley was shot in his head and chest at Coffee Plus, a café which is part of the Caltex Bokor gasoline station in central Phnom Penh. Caltex is wholly owned by multi-national energy company Chevron. As Oeuth Ang fled the scene of the crime, video footage revealed that a police officer on a motorbike suspiciously pulled up alongside him to exchange words multiple times, yet made no effort to make an arrest. Moreover, Oeuth Ang was followed by another motorbike, which appeared to carry a passenger armed with an AK-47. The man carrying the rifle later jumped into an SUV, which continued to follow Oeuth Ang.
The suspect of the crime was known only as "Choub Samlab" ('Meet to Kill' in English) until angered citizens launched their own investigation into his true identity. But Buntenh, an activist monk that had been close to Kem Ley, began to uncover the real facts about the killer and post them on social media. The Cambodian media also began to delve into his history. It was revealed that his real name was Oeuth Ang, and that he was in fact married and from Siem Reap. All of those interviewed maintained that he did not have $3,000 to lend to Kem Ley. Moreover, it was uncovered that he had a history in the military, and maintained close links to his former commanders.
Chum Hour and Chum Hout, twin brothers and environmental activists, gave an interview a matter of hours after the murder of Kem Ley. They stated that just two days earlier they had been spied on by three men, including one with a walkie-talkie, during a meeting with Kem Ley. On 14 July, fearing for their safety and the possibility of political persecution, they fled the country and gained temporary asylum in Thailand. In August, they returned to Cambodia.
On 24 July, up to hundreds of thousands of Cambodians took to the streets to pay their respects and celebrate the life of Kem Ley. The convoy carrying his glass casket slowly passed through the capital to his home province of Takeo. As the procession made its way through the streets, many protestors waved anti-government posters.
Throughout July, Bou Rachna, the widow of Kem Ley, expressed her fears over the safety of her family. On 31 August, she and her four children fled Cambodia. At this time, she was pregnant with the couple's fifth child. Bou Rachna's application for asylum in another country is still pending, despite widespread concerns that her current living situation is having a severely detrimental effect on the education and wellbeing of her five young children.
In July, Thak Lany was recorded on video stating that Hun Sen was behind the killing of Kem Ley. On 17 November, she was convicted of defamation and incitement in absentia and sentenced to 18 months in prison by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Thak Lany has remained in self-imposed exile in Europe since the suit was originally filed by Hun Sen, leaving an unfilled seat in the Senate.
On 13 December, Sam Rainsy filed a request that Chevron release all CCTV footage taken of the Caltex Bokor petrol station premises between 1 and 14 July. This request also called on the release of documents identifying all employees of the petrol station. The request was made to district court in the U.S. By February, a subpoena was finally issued demanding that Chevron release the CCTV footage of the murder of Kem Ley. However, in April, Chevron filed a motion to repeal this subpoena on the basis that they had no footage. Sam Rainsy has repeatedly attempted to challenge this motion.
On 10 January, Al Jazeera 101 East released a documentary focusing on the killing of Kem Ley. This documentary characterized the murder as a 'political assassination' and strongly alluded that it was orchestrated by the state. It also voiced heavy doubt about many elements of the case, such as the claim of an unpaid debt of $3,000 and the alleged relationship between Oeuth Ang and Kem Ley. It moreover revealed that several witnesses, all of whom were too scared to talk on screen, reported the occurrence of a meeting between senior military and district officials and Oeuth Ang a week before the murder of Kem Ley in Cambodia's Siem Reap province. Mann Sokhab, the district police chief of Angkor Chum, Siem Reap, denied such claims following the release of the documentary.
On 17 February, Kim Sok was charged with defamation and incitement and sent to prison, just two days after claiming the government was responsible for the murder of Kem Ley during an interview with Radio Free Asia. He shouted "I'm not afraid so you should all not be afraid" to hundreds of his supporters following questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. In June, he then used a bail hearing against his ongoing detention to further accuse Hun Sen of orchestrating the murder of Kem Ley. On 10 August, he was convicted to one and a half years under these charges.
On 1 March, Oeuth Ang was put on trial at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The trial commenced at 08:00 and concluded at 13:00, with oral testimonies from seven officials involved in the investiga-tion, two employees of Caltex, and the doctor who examined the body of Kem Ley. The prosecution also played CCTV footage and read out statements from various civil parties and witnesses of the murder, including a testimony from Bou Rachna. Oeuth Ang fully confessed to the murder. On 23 March, he was found guilty of premeditated murder and the unauthorized holding or transporting of weapons under the Cambodian Criminal Code.
Following the conviction of Oeuth Ang, it was announced that there would be a further investigation into two additional persons of interest, 'Pou Lis' and 'Chak'. Oeuth Ang claimed that he was introduced to Kem Ley by 'Pou Lis' and was sold a handgun by 'Chak'. There were no clear attempts to locate or identify these two men during the original investigation and trial. However, since this announcement, no information concerning the progress of this ongoing investigation has been publicized by either the investigating judge or the Royal Government of Cambodia ("RGC").
On 20 April, Oeuth Ang filed an appeal to overturn his life sentence through his lawyer Yung Phanith. The appeal argued that his sentence was too lengthy and offered no chance for him to rehabilitate.
The one-year anniversary of Kem Ley's murder saw heartfelt commemorations in his hometown of Tram Kak, Takeo and in central Phnom Penh. On 9 July, hundreds of family members, friends, and supporters gathered in white tents surrounding his childhood home to pay their respects. On 10 July in Phnom Penh, events saw human rights activists dressed in black demanding justice at the site of the killing.
On Wednesday, 26 July, Kim Sok was tried on charges of incitement and defamation by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. During the trial, Kim Sok walked out of the courtroom in protest before being returned by guards. The hearing lasted two hours and Kim Sok spent the majority of the trial with paper balls in his ears to protest the illegitimacy of the proceedings and the court. After the trial, Kim Sok condemned the court, saying it "only follows the dirty words of Hun Sen".
On Friday 4 August, Chevron received a subpoena signed by judge Donna Ryu of the U.S. district court of Northern California, compelling them to produce a range of documents and evidence related to the killing of Kem Ley. The subpoena all employees who may have had contact with the Cambodian authorities to turn over any company records or devices containing information related to the killing. Chevron were given a deadline of 25 August to respond.
On Thursday, 10 August, the Appeal Court heard Senator Thak Lany's appeal against her conviction for defamation and incitement and 18-month sentence. The court announced that it would announce its decision on 29 August, despite a request for a delay by Ms. Lany's lawyer.
On Thursday 10 August, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of First Instance announced its verdict to convict Kim Sok, who was found guilty of defamation and incitement, and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, along with an eight million riel fine (about US$2,000) and 800 million riel (around US$200,000) in compensation to the plaintiff, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Friday 11 August the Appeal Court upheld a 20-month sentence against Sam Rainsy for his claim that the ruling party had orchestrated the murder of Kem Ley. The verdict on defamation and incitement charges moved forward in spite of the absence of both Mr. Rainsy - who fled to France in 2015 - and his lawyer.
NEW UPDATEThak Lany's Conviction Upheld
On Tuesday 29 August the Appeal Court upheld an 18-month imprisonment sentence against Senator Thak Lany for her allegations that the Prime Minister Hun Sen was behind the assassination of Kem Ley in July 2016.
More Resources & Information
Cambodia: a hostile environment for rights defendersAsia & Pacific 19 September 2017
With a general election looming in 2018, the Cambodian government has become increasingly hostile to dissent. Our No impunity country backgrounder looks at the escalating crackdown on activism and independent media in the country.
Cambodia: Events of 2016Asia & Pacific Human Rights Watch (HRW) 6 February 2017
Human Rights Watch's annual review of the human rights situation in Cambodia, featuring the killing of Kem Ley.
Briefing Note on Impunity in CambodiaAsia & Pacific Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) 31 October 2014
This Briefing Note outlines how impunity in Cambodia varies from murder cases of human rights activists and journalists that are never investigated, to cases where security forces have used excessive violence against civilians and remain unpunished, to well-connected officials evading justice.