Eight months after firing two bullets point blank into political analyst Kem Ley, former soldier and ex-monk Oeut Ang was yesterday sentenced to life in prison for murder and illegal gun possession, while it was also revealed two more suspects were under investigation.
The verdict, however, brought little closure for many Cambodians unconvinced the prominent critic of the government was slain over an unpaid debt, as claimed by the killer.
Some, including the suspect’s own mother, have suggested he was a hired gun, with the execution-style killing at a Caltex service station on July 10 last year widely considered politically motivated.
In a hearing that lasted slightly more than 30 minutes, Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Leang Samnath convicted Ang under articles 200 and 490 of the Criminal Code after noting he confessed to shooting Ley during his March 1 trial.
He then delivered a life sentence for the 44-year-old, who has falsely maintained that he is a 39-year-old migrant worker named “Choub Samlab”, which means “meet to kill” in English.
“The court has enough proof to put the burden [of guilt] on the accused Oeut Ang for premeditated murder and illegal gun possession,” Samnath said after summarising the case against Ang, who remained largely expressionless during the session.
Samnath also revealed the case had been split in two, with two other suspects still under investigation.
Though a police official previously vowed to find the “mastermind” behind the shooting, the additional case does not relate to an organiser, based as it is on Ang’s largely unchallenged testimony of killing the analyst in anger over an unpaid $3,000 debt – a claim refuted by both his own wife and Ley’s family, who say the pair never met.
Speaking outside the court, defence lawyer Yung Phanith – who said no decision had been made on whether to appeal what he called a “heavy” sentence – explained the second case involved two men vaguely referred to by Ang during his March 1 testimony, neither of whom were produced as witnesses.
They include “Pou Lis” – the suspect’s acquaintance from Thailand – who Ang said arranged his only purported meeting with Ley at a restaurant in Phnom Penh in September 2015 when he handed over the $3,000, ostensibly in exchange for a job and house and “Chouk”, the Thai national from whom Ang said he acquired the Glock handgun used to shoot the critic.
In a phone conversation yesterday afternoon, Phanith said “Chouk” was wanted for providing the weapon, though he wasn’t sure of what charge would apply to “Pou Lis”. Phanith conceded the scant details would make it difficult to track the gun seller, and allowed he wasn’t even sure if “Pou Lis” – who Ang claimed had worked for Ley – existed.
“For the two suspects, it seems they don’t have clear national identities or clear addresses,” he said. “The court cannot try anyone without an identity.”
Reached yesterday, the prosecutor in the case, Ly Sophana, said the case was split so Ang could be tried while the investigation into the other suspects continued. Asked about progress in finding the men, he referred questions to investigating judge Seng Leang, who he said was responsible.
While Leang could not be reached, Phnom Penh deputy police chief Ly Song said his department had not received a request from the judge to make further inquiries in the case, as per procedure.
Ley, one of the country’s highest profile political analysts, was gunned down about 9am while he enjoyed his regular morning coffee at the petrol station on Monivong Boulevard, a moment captured on CCTV footage shown to the court.
Ang, a Siem Reap province native, was arrested soon about 2 kilometres away.
Several civil society groups released statements saying the case raised more questions than answers. “The proceedings may have established that Oeuth Ang pulled the trigger, but the investigation does not seem to have considered whether someone else loaded the gun,” wrote Amnesty International director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Champa Patel in one statement, also signed by the International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights Watch.
“It is clear that the authorities want to close the book on this case and move on but failures in the investigation of this heinous act can only serve to compound the injustice already suffered by the family of Kem Ley”.
A separate statement signed by 66 NGOs, including Licadho, Adhoc, Central and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, slammed the trial as a “charade” and called for an independent investigation, pointing to several inconsistencies and shortcomings in the “inadequate” original inquiry.
These included a lack of relevant witnesses and the absence of comprehensive cross-examination, the fact that no CCTV of Ang’s arrival at the gas station was released, the unexplained role of men seen on traffic camera footage trailing him including an individual openly carrying an assault rifle on a motorbike and the suspect’s strange interactions with another man on a police motorbike.
The latter point refers to Ang briefly jumping on the bike before dismounting and continuing to run, which the groups called “bizarre behavior [that] remains without credible explanation”.
Reached yesterday, Ley’s former assistant Hang Vitou said he was unaware of anyone called “Pou Lis” having worked for his late boss. He said he remained convinced there were more suspects “behind” Ang, who should have been found prior to the killer’s trial. “The reason ‘owing money’ was unreasonable,” Vitou added. “The important thing is to find out who is behind, who hired him to kill.”
Watch defence lawyer Yung Phanith’s statement here: