Political commentator Kem Ley was shot dead at a gas station in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 [Daniel de Carteret/Getty Images]
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Human rights groups have condemned the arrest of seven activists in Cambodia, as they renewed calls for an independent investigation into the murder of a prominent political analyst three years ago.
Commentator Kem Ley was shot dead at a gas station in the capital, Phnom Penh, in broad daylight on July 10, 2016.
Tuesday: Kong Raiya and three family members arrested for t-shirts
Wednesday: Anniversary; 3 additional activists arrested: twins Chum Hout and Chum Hour; both released in the evening; and Soung Neak Porn
He was killed a few days after giving a radio interview about a Global Witness report, which revealed the business network of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family.
The alleged killer, Oeuth Ang, was convicted to life imprisonment. But many have raised doubts that the motive he cited – that Kem Ley owed him $3,000 – was the real reason for the killing.
On the third anniversary of Kem Ley’s killing, 24 human rights organisations – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Cambodia-based rights organisation Licadho – called for an independent investigation into his death.
On Tuesday, the day prior to the anniversary, youth activist Kong Raiya and three family members were arrested for selling tshirts that showed an image of Kem Ley.
After two court appearances on Thursday, Raiya was charged with “incitement to commit a felony”, and brought to pretrial detention, according to Licadho. The offence carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
This is the second time he has been charged with this offence – in 2016, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was released in 2017.
On Wednesday, scores of civilians had gathered at Caltex Gas station to commemorate Kem Ley at the location of his murder.
Among them were three more activists who were arrested by Cambodian authorities.
Two of them, Chum Hout and Chum Hour, were released later in the evening without being charged.
In a phone interview with Al Jazeera, Chum Hout said he and his twin brother were arrested at a petrol station while on their way to pay their respects to Kem Ley in a pagoda.
Other activists were allowed to go, but they were prevented from entering it, he said.
They were then questioned about their motives.
“I replied: I need justice, I need real justice, I have no other goal, I want justice [for Kem Ley],” Chum Huot said.
“One government official, he told us: ‘Just keep quiet. It’s good for you. Don’t say anything, don’t do activities – that will be good for you. But if you still do those activities, the law will pursue you’,” Chum Hout said.
“But I said that it’s my decision, and that my decision is to continue what I do if the government does something wrong in my country … I am not scared.”
While Chum Hout and his brother were released on Wednesday evening, youth activist Soung Neak Porn was summonsed to court on Thursday after his arrest on Wednesday.
He was still under questioning at the time of publication.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin could not be reached for a comment.
Human rights organisations denounced condemned the arrests.
“It’s difficult to believe that seven people have been arrested and several of them could face criminal charges for just wanting to publicise the killing of Kem Ley and pay respect to him and his family with flowers and t-shirt-photos,” Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said authorities in the country had imposed “excessive restrictions” on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression during the anniversary.
“The arrest of seven youth in relation to peaceful activities to commemorate Dr. Kem Ley, and the additional restrictions on citizens wishing to pay their respects to Dr. Kem Ley, reflect the closing civic space in Cambodia,” she said in an email to Al Jazeera.
But Council of Minister’s spokesman Phay Siphan denied the allegations.
“We support any peaceful opposition,” he said, adding that the activists had to have obtained permissions before gathering.
He said some activists had initially hidden their t-shirts bearing Kem Ley photographs and only taken their jackets off in the gas stations. He questioned their intentions.
“Why did they pretend to be regular customer? … Why did they hide the t-shirt?”
Siphan said this was a potential hint that they were forming a “colour revolution”, as previously activists had worn black t-shirts when holding a vigil for arrested activists – and now, he said, the t-shirts were white.
He declined to comment further on the court cases, saying that he had no additional information on them and referred questions to prosecutors and the Ministry of Justice.