The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday laid murder and illegal weapons possession charges against the man arrested for the murder of well-known political analyst Kem Ley on Sunday, though authorities revealed no new information about the case, doing little to quell widespread speculation of a political assassination.
A popular and outspoken critic of the government, Kem Ley, 46, was shot twice after sitting down for his morning coffee at a favorite convenience store in central Phnom Penh. The suspected shooter, who was arrested a few blocks away, confessed to the murder and said he had taken revenge over a $3,000 loan Kem Ley was refusing to repay.
After three days of questioning, a municipal court judge finally charged the man on Wednesday morning, said Ly Sophanna, a court spokesman.
The premeditated murder charge carries a sentence of life in prison.
Authorities in Siem Reap province have identified the arrested man as 43-year-old Oeuth Ang, a local resident who had spent time as a monk and, more recently, working for an environmental NGO.
But the court is so far sticking to the name—an apparent alias—that he gave police: Chuop Samlap, which translates as “Meet Kill.”
“We have decided to charge the suspect based on the background information he provided. The next step is to investigate his background,” Mr. Sophanna said. “The perpetrator said that his name is Chuop Samlap, aka Samlab, 38 years old.”
The spokesman added that the court also charged another person suspected of selling the murder weapon, a Glock pistol, with making an illegal weapons sale. But he declined to provide any information about the second suspect or the investigation in general, while spokesmen for the National Police and Interior Ministry could not be reached.
Investigating Judge Seng Leang, who is handling the case, declined to comment.
The suspected killer’s confession appeared soon after his arrest on Sunday in a video posted online by Fresh News, a CPP-friendly outlet often the first to publish government announcements and documents.
Many have dismissed the man’s professed motive as a government cover-up, while the brazen daytime murder has renewed fears of a return of the high-profile hits on government critics seen in Cambodia’s recent past. The families of Kem Ley and Mr. Ang have both told reporters that they were not aware that the two men even knew each other, let alone that there was an unresolved debt between them.
Calls for a thorough and independent investigation of the murder have come from all corners, including NGOs, the opposition CNRP and a group of U.N. human rights experts, who also suggested the possibility of political motives.
“We call for a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation into the crime that ensures no perpetrator goes unpunished. This investigation should be conducted by an independent body with no ties to the government,” the U.N. experts said in a joint statement issued on Wednesday.
“The circumstances of Mr. Kem Ley’s death have given rise to deep concerns in view of his standing as a critic of the government and his regular comments in the media highlighting governance and human rights concerns.”
Those who spent time with Kem Ley in the days before his death at the shop where he was killed—the Caltex gas station at the corner of Monivong and Mao Tse Toung boulevards where he often met with friends—have claimed to notice signs that they were being watched.
Chum Huor, another government critic and activist, met with Kem Ley at the shop on Friday, along with his twin brother Chum Huot and a few other like-minded friends.
On Wednesday, Mr. Huor said he and his brother had been called to the U.S. Embassy to discuss the murder. Neither brother could be reached afterward.
Hun Vannak, a fellow member of the Youth for Social and Environmental Protection, an activist group, said he drove the brothers to the embassy meeting and picked them up when it was over. He said he joined the brothers and Kem Ley at the shop on Friday and that the pair felt they were being watched by a group of men at another table.
“The twins told me that the embassy officials asked them about their relationship with Kem Ley and about their backgrounds,” he said.
An embassy spokesman said he was not aware of such a meeting and that, as a policy, the embassy does not discuss private meetings.
On Tuesday, Kem Ley’s pregnant widow Bou Rachana said she feared for her family’s safety—the couple already had four sons—and was hoping that a foreign embassy would help them resettle. She said the Cambodian Australian Federation, a community of Cambodians resettled in Australia, had offered to sponsor her.
On Wednesday, the federation’s president, Chea Youhorn, confirmed the offer.
“If she would like to come, we need her to go to the UNHCR [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] to apply for resettlement in Australia,” he said. “It depends on her…. If she feels not safe in Cambodia, she should do something.”
Mr. Youhorn said the foundation has helped to resettle more than 200 families since the 1980s.
A regional spokeswoman for the UNHCR said she was not aware of any contact with Kem Ley’s family. The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh has said the same.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)