Prominent critic of Cambodian govt shot dead

PHNOM PENH • A prominent Cambodian political analyst known for his trenchant criticism of the government was shot dead yesterday morning at a convenience store, the police said.

The daylight killing of Mr Kem Ley comes at a time of heightened tensions between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the country's political opposition, which accuses the leader of launching a fresh crackdown against it.

Police said Mr Kem Ley, a popular commentator and grassroots campaigner, was gunned down as he was drinking coffee at a convenience store linked to a petrol station in the capital, Phnom Penh.

"He was shot dead at a mart just before 9am," said national police spokesman Kirt Chantharith.

A suspect was arrested nearby and confessed to killing the analyst over an unpaid debt, he said. "But we don't believe him yet. We are working on this case."

Cambodia has a long and tragic history of rights and labour advocates being murdered, with their killers rarely brought to justice.

A photographer at the scene said Mr Kem Ley's body lay in a large pool of blood below a metal table inside the convenience store.

His heavily pregnant wife rushed to the scene and could be seen sobbing outside the store.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered as police cordoned off the area. Some were crying and others were visibly angry as they refused to let the police remove the body.

After a stand-off lasting many hours, Mr Kem Ley's body was eventually taken in his own car - flanked by hundreds of supporters - to a nearby Buddhist temple for the start of funeral rites.

Local media showed pictures of the alleged suspect being taken into custody. He appeared to be injured, with blood running down the left side of his face.

The killing will do little to lower already-simmering tensions in the impoverished South-east Asian nation, which has been ruled by Mr Hun Sen for the past 31 years.

Scores of government critics and rights workers have been arrested in recent months while others have been tied up in ongoing legal cases.

Mr Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, described the assassination as "a vulgar and cruel act that is unacceptable".

"His killing will further deepen the complexity of the political situation," he said, adding that all sides of Cambodia's political divide needed to remain calm.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Prominent critic of Cambodian govt shot dead'. Print Edition | Subscribe