Cambodia has been called on to free those arrested for commemorating the third anniversary of the killing of government critic Kem Ley.
On July 10, 2016, the political commentator was shot dead at a Caltex petrol station in central Phnom Penh.
On Friday 86 NGOs issued a joint statement condemning the deployment of the security forces to the event commemorating Kem Ley and demanding the unconditional release of the two charged men.
“Both men were arrested for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression,” the NGOs said. The statement added that the charges “effectively criminalise acts of remembrance of Kem Ley, such as the attending of commemorative ceremonies or the wearing of T-shirts with his image and quotations.
“The accusation that a peaceful gathering merits a prison sentence is a serious and systematic threat to the little remaining space left for freedom of expression in the country.”
The authorities arrested a former soldier, Oeuth Ang, and in 2017 a Phnom Penh court convicted him during a half-day trial of premeditated murder and illegal possession of a firearm and sentenced him to life in prison. The trial was seen as falling short of international standards and for not providing details of who ordered the killing.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an independent investigation into the daytime killing.
“The brazen daylight murder of Kem Ley three years ago sent shock waves throughout Cambodia that propelled tens of thousands of supporters to march from Phnom Penh to his home province of Takeo,” said HRW’s Asean chief, Brad Adams. “Instead of permitting an independent investigation of allegations that this was a state-sponsored killing, the government has broken up commemorations and arrested activists.”
Many Cambodians do not believe the government’s claim that Kem Ley was killed by Oeuth Ang over a debt.
Last week the police arrested student activist Kong Raya and his relatives for printing T-shirts in Kem Ley’s memory. Raya was charged with incitement and is still being held.
On July 10, protesters gathered at the site of Kem Ley’s murder but were prevented from laying wreaths or drinking coffee at the petrol station.
The police arrested Soung Neakpaon, 29, a student who distributed posters calling for an end to extrajudicial killings and was charged with incitement to commit a felony.
The Grassroots Democracy Party was also blocked from travelling to Takeo province to commemorate Kem Ley’s death.
Kem Ley was murdered during a state crackdown on NGOs, the media and opposition.
“Cambodia’s donors should call for the release of anyone charged for peaceful protests and renew demands for an independent investigation into Kem Ley’s killing,” Adams added. “A government with nothing to hide should allow this or expect to see protests every year on the anniversary of this atrocity.”
Kem Ley’s funeral. Picture credit: Wikimedia