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Cambodian Government Closes Investigation Into Murder Of Activist


In Cambodia, the government has closed its investigation into the killing of a prominent activist and government critic. His death in July prompted a huge public demonstration from Cambodians who were distrustful of their government. The country has a history of political violence. Michael Sullivan has more from Phnom Penh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Kem Ley had a big heart and a big mouth. And that combination probably got him killed. Fellow activist Pa Nguon Teang...

PA NGUON TEANG: He dared to talk the truth. He dared to frankly, openly talk about a sensitive issue. And after his death, it's hard to find any person to talk like him.

SULLIVAN: Kem Ley was talking a lot about one of those sensitive issues just a few days before he was murdered, a report by the watchdog group Global Witness that took aim at Prime Minister Hun Sen, who's been in power for the past 30 years, alleging that he and his extended family accumulated massive wealth and power through corruption and the use of force.


KEM LEY: Abuse of power for private gain.

SULLIVAN: The allegations were nothing new. The evidence, including leaked documents from inside the government, was. And Kem Ley seized on it in interviews like this one on Radio Free Asia and in local newspapers - both the report and the criticism drawing the ire of the prime minister's family. Political analyst Dr. Meas Ny.

MEAS NY: I think people believe that was the tipping point because he got killed two days later.

SULLIVAN: Prime Minister Hun Sen quickly promised a vigorous investigation but has been silent ever since. And when police said they'd caught the man who did it, an unemployed migrant worker from a distant province who said he shot Kem Ley over an unpaid $3,000 loan, there was skepticism. Even the man's wife, who says he was unemployed and frequently drunk, can't figure out where he could find $3,000 to begin with, let alone the Glock pistol he allegedly used to shoot Kem Ley. Journalist May Thittara of the Khmer Times has been following the case from the beginning.

MAY THITTARA: I think he's a fall guy.

SULLIVAN: He says if the government wanted to prove Oueth Ang was the killer, they'd release the CCTV footage from the scene. That hasn't happened. And even the Interior Ministry spokesman has his doubts about the man in custody.

KHIEU SOPHEAK: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Spokesman Khieu Sopheak says he doesn't believe the alleged killer story about lending Kem Ley money. And he doubts a lot more of the details in his alleged confession. So if he didn't do it, who did? Again, Meas Ny.

NY: What I have heard from the inside the government Secret Service - they know exactly who they are.

SULLIVAN: In fact, just about everybody seems to know who's behind it. But nobody dares say so out loud. Environmental activist Chum Hout and his twin brother were with Kem Ley two days before his death.

CHUM HOUT: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "Yes, for sure. Everyone knows who did it," he says. "But if we say the name, we have a problem with the whole family." And there's little doubt which family he's referring to. No date has been set for the trial of the alleged killer. Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, is looking to extend his decades-long rule in a general election next year. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Phnom Penh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.