Man charged over shooting of Cambodia government critic Kem Ley

Cambodian Buddhist monks walk past portraits of Kem Ley during a funeral ceremony in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2016.
Cambodian Buddhist monks walk past portraits of Kem Ley during a funeral ceremony in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - A Cambodian court on Wednesday (July 13) charged a man with murdering a prominent political analyst in a brazen daylight shooting in the capital.

Police accuse Oueth Ang, 43, of gunning down pro-democracy campaigner Kem Ley at a Phnom Penh coffee shop on Sunday morning.

But in a bizarre twist to the case, prosecutors say the alleged killer insists he is called Chuob Samlab, an unlikely Khmer name meaning "meet to kill" and is in fact aged 38.

The murder sent shudders through Cambodian civil society in a country already bristling with political tensions and where activists are frequently threatened by powerful interests.

Oueth Ang has been charged "with premeditated murder and carrying a weapon without authorisation", according to prosecutor Ly Sophanna, who declined to give further details of the police probe.

Officers have said the suspect claimed he shot Kem Ley over an outstanding debt.

But doubts persist over the motive in a country where the rule of law is threadbare and critics of the elite are easily silenced.

On Tuesday the suspect's wife seeded fresh uncertainty, saying her husband did not have money to lend the victim.

"I don't believe the debt issue was the motive. Kem Ley is rich and we are poor," 45-year-old Hoeum Horth told AFP, explaining her shock at his alleged involvement.

Kem Ley, a popular radio commentator, was a regular critic of Hun Sen, the 63-year-old prime minister who has ruled over notoriously corrupt Cambodia for three decades, as well as the political opposition.

Hun Sen's government stands accused of cracking down on critics and political rivals ahead of 2018 elections, using the courts to strongarm opponents.

He has also been accused of tampering with elections, running a graft-riddled business empire and spearheading a host of rights abuses during his three decades in office.