Kem Rithisith, brother of slain political analyst Kem Ley, yesterday said a litigious small-time politician’s lawsuit against the organisers of his brother’s funeral was unfounded, contradicting the plaintiff’s prior claims.
Cambodian Youth Party leader Pich Sros filed a suit accusing activist monk But Buntenh, independent media advocate Pa Nguon Teang and labour rights activist Moeun Tola of misappropriating funds meant for the revered political analyst’s funeral, claiming he had inside information from Ley’s brother, Rithisith.
The three have since been charged with “breach of trust” by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which also ordered they be placed in pre-trial detention.
Rithisith had initially been reticent on the subject of the suit, saying only that it was Sros’s “right” to file such a complaint, even while his sister-in-law, Bou Imolyta, publicly opposed the accusations from the outset. Yesterday, however, Rithisith said in an interview that Sros’s suit was baseless.
“I never supported the lawsuit,” Rithisith said.
“The committee did not hold the money,” he added, referring to the three civil society members, who helped organise the memorial. “The funeral money was controlled by the relatives of both sides.”
Ley, a popular public commentator, was murdered in 2016 in an assassination widely believed to be politically motivated due to his frequent criticism of the government. His death was met with a huge outpouring of public grief, and his funeral procession through Phnom Penh was tens of thousands strong.
Buntenh, Nguon Teang and Tola have also been critical of the government in the past. Sros, meanwhile, has risen to prominence largely thanks to his high-profile lawsuits against the opposition, prompting some to accuse him of acting as a proxy for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, a charge he denies.
Sros filed his complaint against the three after Buntenh accused him of spending more than $2,000 to raise less than $800 towards a memorial stupa for Ley – an account that Sros readily acknowledged to be true.
Rithisith met with Sros to accept the money, and said he told him at the time that the family had collected about $100,000 in donations, which was given to Ley’s wife, who is overseas seeking asylum. Sros has claimed – without evidence – that the funeral committee raised $300,000, a figure Rithisith said was incorrect.
Though Rithisith said he didn’t remember all the details of his conversation with Sros “clearly”, he said he never indicated the family received less money than they expected.
“There should be no complaint,” Rithisith said yesterday. “We, the relatives, also appeal to the court to forgive them.”
Sros admitted yesterday that the estimation of $300,000 was his own.
“What [Rithisith] told me is that Venerable But Buntenh went abroad to collect money, but … he never received money from the monk But Buntenh, not even a dollar,” Sros claimed, saying this was the “clue” he relied on to file his suit.
Rithisith yesterday said that he had discussed Buntenh’s trip with Sros, but said that Buntenh later told him the money raised had been given directly to Ley’s wife.
Buntenh is currently abroad, and could not be immediately reached for comment on his fundraising. On Sunday, however, Buntenh said he did not plan to return to Cambodia for some time.
“I’ll return [to] Cambodia after finishing my study. It may be . . . about three years,” he said in a message.
Nguon Teang and Tola are also overseas. Nguon Teang could not be reached, but Tola has said he will return in the near future. Tola is currently on a regular scheduled trip through his labour rights group Central, and said he was “shocked” to learn about the breach of trust charges.
“It’s completely not fair,” he said.
“The family also confirmed that they didn’t lose any funds, they didn’t lose any money,” he said, asking “breach of trust of who?”
When asked if he believed the case was politically motivated, Tola deflected, saying only “the public might consider that”.
While Tola admitted he is “seriously concerned”, he said he still plans to return.
“I believe in my own facts that I did not commit anything wrong,” he said.