A former soldier was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for gunning down Kem Ley as the government critic was sitting down for his morning newspapers at his favorite convenience store cafe in July.
In a case widely believed to have been a state-sponsored hit, the more surprising news was that the court has not closed the case, and is still investigating two suspects—one named “Pou Lis,” which sounds like the word for police in Khmer, and a gun-dealer named Chak.
Entering the courtroom just after 8 a.m., Oeuth Ang stared ahead in silence and sat down, waiting for about 30 minutes for Presiding Judge Leang Samnath, who has overseen Cambodia’s highest-profile trial in at least a decade.
Taking his seat on the bench, Judge Samnath instructed Mr. Ang—who has insisted on using the alias Chuop Samlap, which literally translates as “meet kill”—to stand up as he read out the verdict.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court decides to sentence Oeuth Ang, also known as Chuop Samlap, to life in prison on charges of premeditated murder and illegal weapons possession on July 10, 2016, committed at the Caltex Star Mart,” he said.
The gunman, who showed no emotion, was then ordered to fingerprint the verdict before being swiftly ushered out of the courtroom, successfully shielded from reporters and photographers as he was placed in a prison vehicle.
Kem Ley’s murder sent shockwaves across the nation, seen by many as both a depressing return to politically motivated killings of the past and a symbol of the government’s sprawling efforts to suppress dissent ahead of local elections in June and national elections next year.
Mr. Ang was arrested shortly after running from the crime scene and promptly paraded in front of the media under his alias, claiming that he had shot Kem Ley over an unpaid $3,000 debt. This was refuted by the family of both men, who claimed they had never met.
In Mr. Ang’s village in Siem Reap province in the days after the slaying, a neighbor, who claimed to have served with Mr. Ang in the army under the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, told reporters that his old friend had called him shortly before the murder, claiming to have traveled to Phnom Penh to re-enlist in the military.
Monks at a pagoda in which Mr. Ang had stayed in 2014 painted a picture of an unpredictable character who regularly beat young monks and claimed to know top commanders and police chiefs in Phnom Penh.
This month’s trial—conducted over the course of a single morning—was slammed for its lack of in-depth cross examination of witnesses and its failure to properly challenge the plausibility of Mr. Ang’s claim that he killed Kem Ley after receiving nothing for $3,000 he had given the analyst for a house and a job.
The CCTV footage of the murder, which was aired during the trial and then uploaded online by government mouthpiece Fresh News, proved inconclusive to many due to Kem Ley’s face being out of frame in the grainy footage. It also sparked further questions about the strange behavior of numerous individuals during Mr. Ang’s flight from the store until his arrest, including his apparent familiarity with the police pursuing him.
Speaking outside the court, Mr. Ang’s defense lawyer, Yung Phanith, said the municipal court was still investigating the possible involvement of others in the murder.
“They have split the case in order to investigate the related persons,” Mr. Phanith said.
“One is named Pou Lis and the other named Chak,” he added. “These two guys haven’t given testimony at the court yet and we are not sure if it will make any change to the case of Chuop Samlap.”
The lawyer added that he would have to confer with his client before deciding whether to appeal the verdict.
During his trial, Mr. Ang said he had purchased the Glock pistol used to murder Kem Ley from a Thai man named Chak. It was not clear how Pou Lis might have been involved, though questions have also been raised over who brought the shooter from his hometown in Siem Reap province to Phnom Penh in the days before the shooting.
Court spokesman Ly Sophana confirmed that investigations in the case were ongoing.
“The case was divided in order to continue the investigation into individuals that are useful. The investigating judge continued to investigate the case,” he said, declining to comment further.
A statement signed by Amnesty International, Hu-man Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists released after the verdict outlined eight major flaws in the hasty trial.
First, it picks apart the prosecution’s failure to investigate Mr. Ang’s claim he had the means to provide Kem Ley with $3,000 because he had sold a parcel of land he had possessed since he was young.
“However, the prosecutor did not outline any efforts investigators had taken to verify this part of Oeuth Ang’s story, for example locating the land, obtaining any proof of ownership or sale, or interviewing the alleged purchaser to verify that the sale took place,” the statement said.
The apparent lack of effort to locate Pou Lis and Chak, to investigate Mr. Ang’s alleged military links, or to interview a man wearing a white shirt who was sitting next to Kem Ley when he was killed were also highlighted as major flaws.
“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,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in the statement.
“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 from 65 local NGOs, including rights groups Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), raised widespread concerns about the adequacy of the whole judicial process and called for an independent commission to investigate further.
It spotlights the court’s apparent acceptance that Mr. Ang was the sole perpetrator despite the “total lack of plausibility” of the claims of Kem Ley being indebted to him, and the failure to release CCTV footage of Mr. Ang in the hours before his arrival at the Star Mart.
“This investigation was inadequate and the trial was a charade. We demand an independent inquiry with international assistance to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death, which will be the only way to achieve justice for his family and friends,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s deputy director for advocacy.
Pa Nguon Teang, a friend of Kem Ley’s and director of Voice of Democracy, a radio and online news service, said the life sentence would not quell suspicions of state involvement among the public.
Some people still do not believe that Mr. Ang was the actual shooter, he said. And even if he was, he added, there was a more important question that remained unanswered.
“Who is behind this murder?”