PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian man on Wednesday confessed in court to killing an outspoken government critic over an unpaid loan, but the victim's family said he's a scapegoat in a political assassination.
Migrant worker Oeut Ang said he fired shots that killed Kem Ley last July because he was upset over the $3,000 he was owed. Shortly before his death, Kem Ley spoke on radio on a report about Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's allegedly embezzled wealth.
Cambodian authorities deny any involvement in his killing. Kem Ley's relatives believe the suspect isn't telling the whole truth and that the government may have masterminded the killing.
"I killed Kem Ley because he cheated me," said the suspect, who identified himself by his nickname "Chuob Samlab," translating loosely as "meet and kill."
"Nobody else ordered me to kill him," he said.
Kem Ley's 78-year-old mother, Phork Se, was shocked to hear that the trial has started without her being invited. She called it a "political theater."
"I know that the accused person is not the real killer," she said. "That's why I'm not interested in this trial."
Interviews after the killing cast doubt on Ouet Ang's confession. After his arrest, his wife said they "lived from hand to mouth" and that her husband couldn't have lent Kem Ley the money, a huge sum by Cambodian standards. Kem Ley's relatives said that the doctor-turned-commentator lived simply and had never met the suspect.
Kem Ley appeared constantly as a political analyst on the country's few remaining independent radio stations and newspapers, a thorn in his government's side. He's the most prominent critic killed since trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.
Tens of thousands wept across the country at his funeral two weeks after the killing. The huge crowds were also a reflection of anger against a government that's been jailing and intimidating political opponents.
"The whole thing really doesn't add up," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. "Kem Ley was directly going against Hun Sen's interest by discussing some of the illicit wealth his family had. He paid the price for that."
According to critics, Hun Sen has maintained an iron grip on Cambodia through cronyism, corruption, and blatant vote manipulation. He's faced few challenges to his power over the years, but had a close call in the 2013 elections, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest what they called a stolen vote.
Another political analyst, Kim Sok, was arrested and jailed last month for implying that the government was responsible for killing Kem Ley on the Cambodian-language service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia.