Prominent political analyst and government critic Kem Ley was shot dead this morning at a Caltex service station on Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard, in what the suspected gunman claimed was a dispute over money but others have labelled a political assassination.
Ley, 45, was in the station’s café section near the front entrance at about 9am when a man, later identified as “Choub Samlab” – which translates in English to “meet to kill” – approached him and fired two bullets from a Glock handgun at close range.
According to an officer at the scene, one bullet struck near the father-of-four’s lower left shoulder blade near his heart while the other hit the left side of his head.
At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Phnom Penh municipal police chief Chuon Sovan said officers stationed near the intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse Tuong boulevards chased the suspect, who fled on foot, and fired two shots before confronting him near Svay Porpea pagoda on Sothearos Boulevard.
“After a thorough investigation and forensics at the scene, together with evidence we confiscated from the perpetrator, we confirmed that the suspect was the real killer that killed . . . Kem Ley,” said Sovan.
“We continue to investigate to find the people or conspiracy that was behind the murder,” he added, also noting “Choub Samlab” was probably “not his real name”.
Sovan said the man would appear in court today. An identity card later appeared on social media identifying the suspect as Tit Samol, however the Post was unable to confirm the identity with authorities.
Sovan did not respond to questions regarding a possible political motive, though the swift emergence of a confession video online, among other factors including rumours that CCTV cameras were not operating at the time, fuelled suspicion that the killing was not prompted by a financial dispute. In the clip “Samlab” – identified by the Interior Ministry as a 38-year-old from Banteay Meanchey’s Svay district who had been working as a farmer in Thailand’s Sakeo district – claimed Ley owed him money.
“It’s been one year he did not pay me back, and he lied to me,” the man says, in response to questions by an officer before explaining he bought the gun in Thailand. Asked how he knew the victim, he states: “I used to meet him.” He then claims: “[Ley] said that he borrowed money to help people, but I don’t see he has helped.”
Phnom Penh deputy police chief Sim Vuthy said the amount allegedly borrowed was $3,000.
However, several people, including Ley’s wife and brother, yesterday vehemently rejected that the analyst was in debt to anyone, while friends and relatives said he had recently expressed fear for his safety.
“I’ve lived with him for a long time, and he never borrowed 100 riel from anyone,” Ley’s wife, Bor Rachana, said last night at Wat Chas, where a funeral service is being held for the analyst.
Speaking earlier in the day, Rachana, who is pregnant with the couple’s fifth child, said her husband dropped her off at the market before heading to get his usual coffee at Caltex.
She added: “This was not a personal issue and it is difficult for me to speak, but it is a political issue. It is an injustice for my husband, because he was a good person . . . he had not even drunk his coffee before he got shot.”
Chum Hour, an activist from environmental group Mother Nature who met Ley on Saturday along with his twin brother and four other young activists at the same Caltex where Ley was shot, said the analyst had expressed concerns about his safety. “He said: ‘Twins, if we go to jail, we go together; and if they kill us, we die together’,” Hour said. “I thought he just made a joke . . . He told me to be careful even when I go to the toilet.”
But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said he also had a recent meeting with Ley, where he claimed his life was in danger because of his political activities. “He said ‘very soon one of us is going to be killed’,” Buntenh recalled, adding Ley had booked a ticket to fly to Europe.
Ley’s nephew Ngun David also said his uncle told relatives last Thursday that he was worried for his safety and planning to fly to France though his wife said it was a scheduled trip. “He told our grandfather ‘you are sick but maybe you will live longer than me’,” David said.
Yesterday, as Ley’s body remained at the scene for about five hours, outrage over the killing grew, as did the crowd gathered at the petrol station, with some chanting “the government has killed him”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen took to Facebook to condemn the “cruel and ruthless” act, calling on “all authorities to take serious action”. The ruling CPP and Ministry of Interior also released statements denouncing the murder.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy on Facebook pointed the finger at the government, labelling Ley’s death “state-backed terrorism”.
“Because he apparently represented a political danger for the other side, the latter hired a hitman to assassinate him,” Rainsy said, before referencing the killings of trade unionist Chea Vichea and environmental activist Chut Wutty.
State involvement has been alleged in both cases.
Calling the killing “highly alarming”, the UN Special Rapportteur on the Rights to Freedom and Assembly Maina Kiai also hinted at the possibility of state involvement.
Kiai particularly highlighted Ley’s recent comments in local media about the Hun family’s business interests, details of which were exposed by investigative organisation Global Witness last week.
“Circumstances are plainly suspicious given his standing as a critic of the government and his recent comments in the media about the Global Witness report on the Prime Minister’s family’s business empire,” Kiai said. “There needs to be an urgent, thorough and independent investigation into the murder.”
Global Witness itself put out a statement calling for an investigation, but noted murderers in Cambodia’s “long history” of killings of political, human rights and labour activists were “rarely brought to justice”.