PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A man accused of murdering prominent Cambodian government critic Kem Ley told a court on Wednesday that he killed him over money, in a shooting that drew suspicions of a political motive.
Kem Ley was shot in broad daylight in the capital, Phnom Penh, last year. Tens of thousands of people marched in protest at a time of growing political tension, with Prime Minister Hun Sen gearing up for elections to extend his 30-year rule.
“I killed Kem Ley,” Chuop Somlap, 39, told the court in Phnom Penh. “No one ordered me to do it, I killed him because he cheated me out of $3,000.”
Kem Ley, 46, founded an advocacy group called “Khmer for Khmer” and had been a frequent critic of Hun Sen, who opponents accuse of strong-arm tactics ahead of local elections this year and a general election next year.
Chuop Somlap, a former Khmer Rouge soldier and Buddhist monk whose name means “meet to kill”, is charged with premeditated murder and illegal possession of a weapon.
He said he had met Kem Ley once, a year before the crime, through a friend in Thailand. The critic had promised him a job and a house worth $20,000 if he gave him $3,000, Chuop Somlap said. He reacted out of anger when he got nothing in return for his money, he told the court.
“I shot him in the head and I was afraid he wasn’t dead. I shot once more into the body,” Chuop Somlap said.
CCTV footage from the petrol station where Kem Ley was killed showed a man similar to Chuop Somlap pulling out a gun and aiming at someone, but it is unclear whether that was Kem Ley.
Chuop Somlap said he had bought a Glock pistol for about $1,400 in Thailand and had stalked Kem Ley for days.
Human rights groups and Kem Ley’s supporters remain sceptical of the reason given for the killing.
“There must be someone behind Chuop Somlap,” Am Sam Ath, a human rights worker with Cambodian rights group Licadho, told reporters at the court. “I don’t believe that Chuop Somlap acted alone.”
Kem Ley’s family said the activist did not owe money.
A verdict is due on March 23.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin