A court in Cambodia has sentenced a man to life in prison for the murder of government critic Kem Ley. Some believe the convicted man, who goes by the name "Meet to Kill," may have been a scapegoat and doubt his motive.
The laborer and ex-soldier Oeut Ang, also known by the pseudonym "Chuob Samlab" - which means "Meet to Kill" in Khmer - had admitted to Kem's murder at a store last July.
Judge Leang Sam Nath announced the life sentence on Thursday, a day after finding him guilty of "premeditated murder and possession of a gun without permission."
The convicted man had said he shot Kem twice, including once in the head. He told the court he had carried out the killing after a property and employment deal between the two went bad.
Oeut Ang - who had insisted throughout the trial that his "Meet to Kill" moniker be used by the court - said he had lost $3,000 (2,780 euros) as a result of the transaction.
However, activists say that Kem Ley - a strident government critic - was targeted for political reasons.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, told the DPA news agency that Oeut Ang had been a scapegoat.
"No one believes his lame story about debts owed by Kem Ley, or that he acted alone, without backing by influential people," said Robertson. "The Cambodia government wants this trial done with so they can try to bury the truth, and shout down demands to investigate whether this was a contract killing and who was likely behind it," he said.
Cases never solved
In the days before his death, Kem Ley had given interviews about allegations that veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen's family had amassed huge wealth. During Hun Sen's period in office, which spans more than three decades, multiple critics of the government have been murdered in cases that were unresolved.
Meanwhile, a senior international legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists human rights group, Kingsley Abbott, said the investigation should be reopened.
"Until there is an independent, impartial and effective investigation to establish whether anyone else was involved in the killing, the victims of this terrible crime, including Kem Ley's wife and children, will be unable to obtain justice," said Abbott, who observed the trial.
Kem Ley's death was met with an outpouring of grief in Cambodia. Tens of thousands of people turned out to accompany a funeral convoy that was carrying his body to his home province.
According to a group of politicians from South East Asian nations, the ASEAN
Parliamentarians for Human Rights, the murder had a chilling effect on civil society.
The killing had "cast a dark shadow over both civil society and the opposition in Cambodia, increasing concerns that anyone may be targeted for being too critical of the government or for being too popular," the ASEAN group said.
rc/se (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)