The third anniversary of the murder of Cambodian political commentator Kem Ley was marred by what rights groups called restrictions to the rights of freedom of expression and assembly, including the arrest of several youth activists, drawing condemnation from the country’s dissolved opposition party on Thursday.
Kem Ley was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh, days after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt. In May, Cambodia’s Supreme Court rejected Oeuth Ang’s appeal for reduction of sentence and upheld his life imprisonment term.
On Wednesday, youth activists, students, and representatives of unions and civil society gathered at the Caltex station where Kem Ley was killed to drink coffee and lay wreaths to honor his memory, but were met with around 100 police and members of the security forces who prevented them from paying their respects—including by demanding that they cover T-shirts bearing the commentator’s image.
Authorities arrested youth activists Chhum Huot, his twin brother Chhum Hour and Suong Neakpaon, but later released the two brothers after they were forced to sign a document pledging to refrain from “joining a movement for social unrest.” Suong Neakpaon was questioned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday and provisionally charged with “incitement to commit a felony.”
After his release on Wednesday, Chhum Huot told RFA’s Khmer Service that authorities had no right to detain those who came to peacefully mourn Kem Ley’s passing.
“My message is that the government must prosecute the killers,” he said, suggesting that others were also behind the brazen daylight shooting in the capital.
Suong Neakpaon’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, told RFA that his client is innocent of the charges against him, and said he was being targeted for paying his respects to Kem Ley.
“He was only exercising his basic human rights and did nothing wrong,” Sam Sokong said.
Suong Neakpaon is expected to appear before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday for additional questioning.
Wednesday’s arrests came a day after authorities in Phnom Penh detained youth activist Kong Raiya, his wife Sok Srey Nich, her parents, and Kong Raiya’s six-month-old baby for selling T-shirts bearing Kem Ley’s portrait and urging people to wear them to mark the anniversary of his murder.
Police later released the baby to family members, and yesterday released Sok Srey Nich and her parents, but on Thursday charged Kong Raiya—an activist with the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—with “incitement to commit a felony.” He is now in detention awaiting trial.
Sam Sokong, who is also Kong Raiya’s lawyer, told RFA on Thursday that selling T-shirts to earn a living is not a crime, and called the charges against his client “unjustified.”
He said he will file a request to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to release Kong Raiya on bail.
Sok Srey Nich urged the court to release her husband, who was also arrested in 2015 and served 18 months in jail for “incitement to commit a felony” after he posted a comment on his Facebook page that made reference to a color revolution in Cambodia.
“I appeal to the court to release my husband because he is innocent,” she said, adding that his arrest “hurts our family financially because he is our breadwinner.”
Sok Srey Nich praised her husband’s emotional strength, saying that while she pities him, “I am not afraid,” and slammed the authorities for leaving their baby “traumatized” as a result of their earlier detention.
Rights groups and the CNRP hit out at the arrests, saying that authorities should instead be focusing on investigating Kem Ley’s death and holding those responsible to account.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun, who was among those prevented from laying wreaths on Wednesday, condemned what he called “excessive force” by police at the Caltex station, saying that authorities had “forced people to take off their T-shirts” because they are “afraid of Kem Ley’s image.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA that Kong Raiya and Suong Neakpaon had done nothing wrong, and urged authorities to find justice for Kem Ley’s family.
“These youths didn’t incite any kind of unrest—this is a groundless allegation against them,” he said, adding that he was concerned that the move “is affecting the space for freedom of expression in Cambodia.”
In a statement on Thursday, LICADHO said that all seven of the detentions “mark the continuation of a heavy-handed crackdown by authorities on Cambodian’s right to free expression and assembly,” referring in part to restrictions by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on the opposition, NGOs and independent media in the lead up to the country’s general election in July last year.
In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP, and the wider crackdown by Hun Sen, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s ballot.
The CNRP issued a statement Thursday condemning the charges against the two youth activists and other restrictions against those who sought to pay respect to Kem Ley.
“The CNRP demands the Phnom Penh authorities release Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya immediately and urges them to investigate Kem Ley’s case in order to prosecute his killers according to the law,” the party said.
Meanwhile, authorities imposed similar restrictions on Buddhist ceremonies to mark Kem Ley’s death in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng and Tboung Khmum provinces on Wednesday, according to supporters, who said they proceeded with the events despite official warnings.
A CNRP activist in Battambang named Suon Chamroeun told RFA that traffic police officers were deployed in front of CNRP activists’ houses to stop anyone wearing a T-shirt with Kem Ley’s image on it, and even fined a villager who tried to attend the ceremony U.S. $175 for driving without helmet.
“This is the first time police ever fined someone for driving without helmet at this location,” he said, suggesting that the move was “a threat to stop villagers from coming.”
In Banteay Meanchey activists said authorities also threatened to take action anyone who took part in the local Buddhist ceremony for Kem Ley.
Banteay Meanchey-based activist Suon Seab told RFA that some people had openly marked the anniversary, while others did so “in secret, because they were afraid of the police officers.”
Tan Sorithi, CNRP chief of Kampong Cham, told RFA that he ignored police orders, even though officers were taking pictures of participants at the local ceremony.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun rejected reports of police officers disturbing anniversary events around the country, calling them baseless accusations, though he confirmed that Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya had been arrested for incitement because “they distributed leaflets” and said “authorities invited them for questioning.”
“At a ceremony, if there are many people, police must be present to make sure there is order,” he said, adding that “no one stopped them” from paying respect to Kem Ley.
Call for investigation
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia issued a statement on its Facebook page calling for the government to launch an independent investigation into Kem Ley’s murder to bring justice to his family.
“On the third anniversary of his death, the U.S. government repeats our call for the Cambodian government to conduct a full, transparent, and credible investigation of Kem Ley’s assassination,” the statement said.
“We also express our renewed condolences to Kem Ley’s family, who are still waiting and hoping for a full accounting of his senseless and cowardly killing.”
Soon after Kem Ley’s funeral, and fearing for their safety, his wife Bou Rachana—then pregnant—fled with her children from Cambodia to neighboring Thailand to seek asylum in a third country. They spent over a year and a half in Thailand before being granted permission to settle in Australia in February last year.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin told RFA on Thursday that the investigation into Kem Ley’s murder is complete and that the government has no intention of conducting another probe.
“The investigation was conducted according to the laws of Cambodia, which is a sovereign state,” he said, adding that if the embassy has evidence that the case should be reopened, “please cooperate and forward it to the government.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.