Almost eight months after gunning down Kem Ley in a Phnom Penh petrol station, former soldier Oeut Ang faced trial yesterday, but in a somewhat bizarre hearing referred to himself only as “Choub Samlab” while elaborating on his widely doubted story of shooting the political analyst over a $3,000 debt.
The first and only trial hearing for the high-profile July 10 slaying, the session at Phnom Penh Municipal Court lasted five hours and raised more questions than it answered about the killing, which is widely considered a political assassination.
During proceedings, the suspect, charged with premeditated murder and illegal gun possession, identified himself as the shooter captured in CCTV footage of the murder, which was shown to the court and later released by pro-government outlet Fresh News.
The video showed a man resembling Ang, wearing a baseball cap, draw a pistol in an aisle of the Caltex StarMart on Monivong Boulevard and approach two men: Ley, dressed in red, and a man in a white shirt sitting close to the analyst in the store’s café section.
The latter’s presence had not been mentioned by investigators prior to the trial and the man was not produced as a witness.
With only Ley’s back visible in the frame, the shooter points the pistol, a Glock, which was yesterday shown to the court.
At 9:05am, according to the timestamp, he fires two bullets into the analyst from point blank range within a few seconds.
Though the footage provided a degree of insight into Ley’s final moments, and other clips from traffic cameras showed Ang’s flight from the scene, the suspect’s testimony diverged almost immediately from what has been ascertained outside the courtroom.
After arriving just after 8am dressed in orange prison garb, Ang, 44, refused to acknowledge his identity.
“My name is Choub Samlab,” he told presiding judge Leang Samnat, using the same name he gave in a confession video released just hours after the murder, which translates in English to “meet to kill”.
“I have no other name,” he later added. “People have just called me Choub Samlab since I was 10 years old.”
Though prosecutor Ly Sophana later dismissed the claim that he was not Oeut Ang – a 44-year-old former soldier, ex-monk, and environmental NGO worker from Siem Reap province’s Angkor Chum district – the suspect’s narrative of why he killed Ley remained largely unchallenged in questioning.
During testimony, Ang, who repeatedly extolled his prowess with a gun, again claimed he shot the father-of-five over a $3,000 debt and again said he acted alone.
“I killed because of vindictiveness,” he said.
“Since I was born, no one had cheated me; when someone cheated me, I was angry, so I decided to kill.”
The motive has been widely doubted including by Ang’s wife, mother and neighbours, who have said they believe their son was a hired gun, noting he had never mentioned Ley previously and had no money to lend.
Ang yesterday, however, claimed he had no wife or mother and had never lived in Siem Reap, saying he was a 39-year-old orphan and migrant labourer who worked in Thailand.
He testified that he met Ley once at a restaurant in Phnom Penh in September 2015 after a co-worker in Thailand, whom he called “Pou Lis”, promised Ley would give him a job as an “election advocate” and build him a $20,000 house in exchange for $3,000.
Ang claimed that, prior to the meeting with Ley and “Pou Lis”, he sold his land in Banteay Meanchey province’s Svay Chek commune for $3,500.
At their first and only meeting, he claimed he handed over the $3,000 before spending two more nights in Phnom Penh in a guesthouse where he could “see many airplanes flying”.
After this, he claimed he left the city, but grew “angry” after being unable to reach Ley.
According to his interview records, Ang said he travelled to Thailand and acquired a gun worth nearly $1,300 from a Thai national “named Chork” in April 2016, though he claimed he didn’t hand over any money to the dealer.
Then the suspect also claimed that on June 29 last year, with 5,000 baht (about $143), he left Thailand through an illegal checkpoint, arrived in Siem Reap on June 30 and reached Phnom Penh on July 1, where, utilising a motodop, he searched for Ley for 10 days, sleeping in construction sites and empty market stalls.
Though he claimed to have spotted Ley twice around the city – in a crowded car park and in traffic – it wasn’t until, feeling hungry, he coincidentally walked into the StarMart where Ley was drinking coffee, according to his interview read to the court.
“I went inside and saw him sitting with two other guys,” he said.
“I walked around them four times. Finally, I went close to him from the left, about 2 to 3 metres from him, and shot him in the head, and another shot under the arm.”
During questioning, defence lawyer Yung Phanith asked his client why he had not talked to Ley if he wanted his money back.
“Because I was afraid that he would see my gun and would request police to arrest me,” he replied.
However, despite more than one pronouncement by government officials that they did not believe Ang had planned the attack, Phanith did not argue that any other individual may have been involved.
In his closing statements, he asked for a “lighter sentence” because Ang, who faces life in prison, “had a miserable life”, “looked pitiful” and “felt sorry” about what he did.
“What he did was not his fault alone, but society’s,” he said.
Despite there being several people in the store, including three staff members, only one witness present during the shooting testified yesterday, along with several policemen who attended the scene after the murder and a technician from Caltex.
Pen Pisey, who makes coffee at the StarMart, said Ley was a regular customer, who usually came alone. She recalled the suspect was small and wearing two layers of shirts, but did not witness the shooting itself.
“I was too shocked when I heard the sound. When I turned my eye there, I just saw the suspect from behind as he walked to the front door,” she said.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Sophana said Ang had planned to kill Ley and called for the judge to “sentence him by the law”.
Outside the court, Am Sam Ath, of rights Licadho, said Ang’s story remained deeply implausible.
“Can you believe that for people who have never met each other, one in Thailand and one in Cambodia, one would dare give another $3,000,” Sam Ath said.
“Secondly did Kem Ley lack that $3,000? . . . In this case, I believe there is someone behind Choub Samlab . . . he cannot have murdered Dr Kem Ley alone.”
A verdict in the case is due on March 23.