A prominent Cambodian political analyst known for his trenchant criticism of the government was shot dead Sunday (Jul 10) morning at a convenience store, police said.
The daylight slaying of Kem Ley, 46, comes at a time of heightened political tensions between strongman premier Hun Sen and the country's political opposition, who accuse the Prime Minister of launching a fresh crackdown against them.
Police said Kem Ley, a popular commentator and grassroots campaigner, was gunned down as he drank coffee at a convenience store attached to a gas station in the capital Phnom Penh.
"He was shot dead at a mart just before 9am," Kirt Chantharith, national police spokesman, told AFP.
A 38-year-old suspect was arrested nearby and confessed to killing the analyst over an unpaid debt, Cambodia's Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Cambodia has a long a tragic history of rights and labour advocates being murdered with their killers rarely brought to justice.
An AFP photographer at the scene said Kem Ley's body lay in a large pool of blood below a metal table inside the convenience store.
His heavily pregnant wife rushed to the scene and could be seen sobbing outside the store.
"I don't know what happened, somebody just called me and said that he's shot," Pou Rachana told Reuters. "He's already dead," she added, as investigators kept her away from the body of her husband.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered as police cordoned off the area, some crying, others visibly angry as they refused to let police remove the body. Some wanted to carry it on a march through the streets of the capital.
After a standoff lasting many hours, Kem Ley was eventually taken in his own car to a nearby Buddhist temple flanked by hundreds of supporters for the start of funeral rites.
Local media also showed pictures of the alleged suspect being taken into custody. He appeared injured with blood running down the left-hand side of his face.
The United States embassy in Phnom Penh said Kem Ley was one of Cambodia's most prominent political analysts while Britain's envoy called his death a serious loss to the country.
The killing will do little to lower already simmering tensions inside the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, which has been dominated by Hun Sen for the past 31 years in a reign marred by accusations of corruption, electoral fraud and rampant rights abuses.
Scores of government critics and rights workers have been arrested in recent months while others have been tied up in ongoing legal cases.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, described the assassination as "a vulgar and cruel act that is unacceptable".
"His killing will further deepen the complexity of political situation," he told AFP, adding that all sides of Cambodia's political divide needed to remain calm.
Hun Sen also described the killing as "heinous" and called on police to better enforce gun laws.
Britain's ambassador in Phnom Penh Bill Longhurst said the killing was "a serious loss to Cambodia".
Kem Ley headed a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer" and was critical of both the government and opposition parties, advocating for a new era of clean politics in a notoriously corrupt nation which is expected to hold a general election in 2018.
But the bulk of his criticism was aimed at Hun Sen's ruling party.
The Prime Minister, a former army commander who defected from the Khmer Rouge, has held power alongside a small but powerful coterie of political allies that have become enormously wealthy.
A report published by Global Witness last week detailed how Hun Sen's family alone had amassed a multi-million-dollar business empire spanning the impoverished country's most lucrative sectors during his rule.
Last week Kem Ley gave a lengthy radio interview welcoming the report, saying it would enable both local voters and foreign investors to have a better idea of how Cambodia's political elite have become so rich.