One of Cambodia’s highest-profile trials in recent memory was over in just four hours on Wednesday, as the man accused of murdering government critic Kem Ley claimed he gunned down the analyst after getting nothing for $3,000 he had paid him for a house and a job.
Despite the first public showing of video footage of the shooting, the hasty trial left observers with more questions than answers, as the accused, identified by his family in Siem Reap province as former soldier Oeuth Ang, still insisted his name was Chuop Samlap, or “Meet Kill.”
Mr. Ang looked visibly thinner than when his bloodied face became infamous across the country on July 10, when he claimed that he shot the popular analyst inside a Star Mart convenience store over Kem Ley’s failure to repay a $3,000 debt—a narrative the families of both men derided as implausible.
Under questioning from Presiding Judge Leang Samnath, Mr. Ang altered his story, claiming he had sold land in Banteay Meanchey province and given the money to Kem Ley after being introduced to him by a man identified only as “Lis.” When Kem Ley failed to carry through on a promise of a job and a house, Mr. Ang said he decided to kill him.
“With just $3,000 worth of money, how did your anger lead to killing him?” the judge asked.
“He told me a lie and cheated me. He promised to give me a job. He promised I could go along with him during the election campaign,” Mr. Ang said, adding that Kem Ley also promised to build him a house in Banteay Meanchey.
Mr. Ang testified that he had spent the 10 days before the murder attempting to track Kem Ley in Phnom Penh, and had seen his car at the same Star Mart on July 5 and at Daem Thkauv market two days later, but failed to locate him.
However, on July 10, Mr. Ang said he saw the car again outside the Star Mart and entered the store.
“After I saw him and I clearly recognized it was him, I moved back behind the shelves and took out the gun,” he testified. “I shot him two times with my right hand from 2 or 3 meters away.”
Mr. Ang claimed he had bought the gun, a Glock pistol, from a Thai man named Chak in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province for 45,000 baht, or about $1,280.
Asked his identity, Mr. Ang repeatedly said his name was Chuop Samlap, and that he lived in Banteay Meanchey, not Siem Reap, even when faced with contrary statements from his mother and wife.
Asked why he would have been given such an odd name, Mr. Ang claimed it was because he could catch wild animals as a child.
“I’m good at catching fish and hunting other animals so they gave me this name,” he murmured to his defense lawyer Yung Phanith.
The hearing’s most dramatic point came during the screening of the video. Release of the footage had been a rallying call of those close to Kem Ley, who died at 46, and its non-disclosure had raised suspicions among the general public that the government was hiding its involvement.
The first footage, taken inside the Star Mart, included the five minutes surrounding the shooting. In the far right-hand side of the screen, a man, purportedly Kem Ley, is sitting at a table, but only half of his body is visible. Despite previous reports that Kem Ley was drinking coffee alone, it appears he was sitting next to a man in a white T-shirt.
A man wearing dark clothing and a red cap then enters the store and walks down the aisle directly behind the man and picks up an item from a shelf, before turning right at the end of the aisle to catch a glimpse of the victim from behind.
He then turns around, steps back down the aisle and pulls out a gun, before walking behind the man and twice firing into him. The gunman then runs out of the shop as customers and staff scatter.
Footage from numerous street cameras then catch him walking and running while being pursued by motorbikes.
The final video—shaky mobile phone footage leaked on Facebook in July—ends with a uniformed police officer patting Mr. Ang down and protecting him from a barrage of kicks and punches before driving away.
In the trial’s closing arguments, defense lawyer Mr. Phanith asked the judges to show leniency, assigning blame to the men identified only as Lis and Chak, and saying his client was unaware of the consequences of his actions.
“He did not know that he would be punished for killing someone,” he said. “If a person has clear understanding and with self education, no matter the $3,000…he would not have killed a person.”
Mr. Phanith also identified Mr. Ang as an orphan—despite the defendant’s mother providing a statement confirming that he is her son.
“In his life, he has faced a lot of obstacles. He was an orphan without a clear place to stay. He did not meet people who wanted to help correct him. Instead, he met Uncle Lis and Chak,” he said.
For some, such as Kingsley Abbott, a senior international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists who attended the hearing, the trial did nothing by way of exposing the truth of the case.
“The trial was significant not for what was revealed about the investigation, but for the important questions that remained unanswered,” Mr. Abbott said in an email.
“In light of the tremendous public interest in the trial, it is disappointing that by its end it was still not clear whether the issue of the accused’s means to loan money to Kem Ley and purchase a handgun was thoroughly investigated, who introduced the accused to Kem Ley, and what other CCTV footage from Caltex is in the possession of the authorities which was not presented at trial,” he added.
There was a noticeable absence of Kem Ley’s family in the public gallery. His wife, Bou Rachana, the plaintiff in the case, fled Cambodia with their sons out of fear for the family’s safety. The analyst’s brother, Kem Rithisith, said he avoided the hearing due to his lack of trust in the justice system and a belief that the accused was ordered to carry out the killing by a third party.
“What is his intention to come and kill? What is the reason? Who ordered him?” he asked. “There has to be someone behind this.”
The verdict will be announced on March 23.
sony@cambodiadaily.com, wright@cambodiadaily.com
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