Killing of Cambodian couple by businessman revives impunity concerns

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(AP) — In a case that has sparked widespread public outrage, a court in Cambodia formally charged a real estate entrepreneur who held a royally bestowed title with the premeditated murder of a young couple in the capital Phnom Penh.

Social media has been awash for the past week with comments asserting that the suspect is likely to get off because he is rich, a common view about the Southeast Asian country’s justice system. The court ruled Saturday.

The suspect, 50-year-old Srey Sina, allegedly shot to death 27-year-old Long Lysong and his 25-year-old fiancée Khim Kanhchana on June 17 while intervening in a dispute between neighbours. Two other victims in their early 20s sustained minor injuries.

Srey Sina was also charged with attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, according to a statement issued Sunday by the Justice Ministry. It said the charges will be prosecuted in two separate proceedings, each allowing a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment. Cambodia does not have the death penalty. Prosecutors said additional charges could be lodged after further investigation.

The court ordered the suspect detained at Prey Sar prison. He has not been made available for comment and court officials could not be reached Sunday to learn if he has a lawyer.

The case attracted massive attention not only because of the seemingly unprovoked killing of a young, soon-to-be married couple and the petty dispute that sparked it, but also because the suspect held the title of Oknha, an honorific bestowed on business people who donate large sums of money to the government.

The Oknha title is generally associated with influential tycoons who are considered cronies of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has held power for almost four decades. But there are about 1,300 title holders, most of whom, like the suspect, are not public figures.

Unofficially, the title is associated with impunity for the rich, serving as a kind of pre-emptive get-out-of-jail-free card or a way of short-cutting government regulations.

Any cases involving blatant criminality — such as physical attacks or drug trafficking, for example — that attract public interest risk blowback for the government, opening it up to attacks from its opponents.

In recognition of the political sensitivity, Prime Minister Hun Manet and members of his government were quick to issue condolences for the deaths and give assurances that justice would be vigorously pursued.

After his arrest, Srey Sina had his Oknha title revoked by King Norodom Sihamoni. At least two other Ohkna holders had their titles revoked earlier this year in connection with alleged cases of major fraud.

Last week’s shooting was reported to have sprung from a dispute between the victims and one of their neighbors, who was a tenant in a property belonging to the suspect. The tenant, who is not charged with anything, was said by police to have called Srey Sina to help her with the dispute, which police said involved matters including a clothesline, a mango tree and a parking space.

A security camera video leaked to social media over the weekend showed the suspect gesture to Long Lysong to come over to him to a spot just out of camera range, where he evidently shoots him point-blank. He then moves back into view with his pistol, as the other victims scramble to hide underneath and behind tables, but are pursued and shot.

Police, who captured the suspect several hours after he fled the scene of the shooting, said he confessed to the act, claiming that he had been enraged by Long Lysong speaking rudely to him.

In addition to appeals for the harshest possible punishment for the killer, the incident has led to calls for tighter gun control.

By Sopheng Cheang, Associated Press