Government officials attempted to falsely implicate the leadership of the opposition CNRP in the murder of political analyst Kem Ley, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its latest world report, released last night.
The chapter dedicated to Cambodia criticizes the government on a wide range of abuses allegedly committed over the past year, including its handling of the murder of Kem Ley, who was gunned down inside a Phnom Penh convenience store in July.
The U.S.-based organization claims to have evidence that CPP officials attempted to pin the murder—widely believed to have been a state-sponsored hit—on the leadership of the opposition. The investigation into Kem Ley’s murder has been shrouded in secrecy and was closed last month, much to the frustration of the critic’s family and friends.
“According to sources with direct knowledge of the investigation into the killing of Kem Ley, the charging and detention of the alleged shooter was accompanied by an attempt by officials to falsely implicate the CNRP national leadership as having orchestrated the assassination while avoiding following up on leads that might produce evidence of CPP involvement,” the report states.
In the days after the murder, CPP-aligned media ran articles presenting the opposition CNRP as the likely culprits. Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to put forward a similar theory.
“Who would benefit and who would lose from this tragedy?” Mr. Hun Sen asked during a speech in July, claiming the government was suffering “while one side says it is not capable of providing security for its citizens and others say that the incident is politically motivated.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for HRW, said he could not reveal the identity of the sources of the information.
“We have our sources, but we are not at liberty to divulge them,” he said in an email.
“But it’s worth adding that only in the la-la land of CPP propaganda would an official be able to say with a straight face that the opposition had more to gain than Hun Sen by the death of Kem Ley, who was a consistently tough and very public critic of corruption by top government leaders.”
“They were unsuccessful in the implication of CNRP leaders because the claims were so ludicrous that they didn’t pass the laugh test,” he added.
“No one believed what they were saying and as soon as the government realized just how many people were angry about this political killing, they decided it was a better idea to just drop the make-believe story of opposition involvement.”
The rights group has proven to have reliable sources in the government, though they are often cited anonymously.
In its last world report, HRW was first to state that three suspects in a brutal attack on CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October 2015 were members of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit.
It was later confirmed in court that Chay Sarith, Mao Hoeun and Suth Vanny were indeed members of the premier’s bodyguard unit. They were sentenced to four years behind bars in May, but had most of their sentences suspended and walked free less than six months later.
Two received promotions within the military after the attack, according to a royal decree made public last month.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he could not draw conclusions on who was behind the murder of the analyst, who helped found the Grassroots Democracy Party in 2015, and said it should be left to the public to make up their own minds.
“He created the Grassroots Party and then there was his murder, so it’s up to the public to consider,” he said, apparently alluding to concerns within the CNRP that Kem Ley would become a political rival.
“I cannot make any conclusion because I am not a law enforcement official.”
Mr. Eysan said he was unsurprised by the scathing report and doubted the organization’s attitude to the ruling party would ever change as long as Brad Adams, its Asia director, was working there.
“Since the beginning, it is nothing strange for Human Rights Watch, and especially its boss, to feel angry and take revenge against the Cambodian People’s Party as well as the government,” the spokesman said.
“It might be hereditary hatred. Unless he dies, he won’t stop saying it.”