An image of Kem Ley inside a wreath laid in his honor at his funeral at Wat Chas in Phnom Penh. Photo: Daniel de Carteret/ Anadolu Agency

A Cambodian court on Thursday jailed a former soldier for life for the brazen daytime shooting of a strident government critic, a killing that stunned the kingdom’s hemmed in rights community.

Oeuth Ang, an unemployed ex-soldier who calls himself “Meet to Kill,” shot Kem Ley in the head while his victim was having a morning coffee at a Phnom Penh petrol station in July.

He had told the court he shot Kem Ley over a property deal that went bad which saw him hand the activist US$3,000 – more than double Cambodia’s average annual wage.

Supporters of Kem Ley have cast doubt over the apparent motive, in a country where assassinations of government opponents and land and environmental activists are all too common.

Delivering the ruling, Judge Leang Samnath said Oeuth Ang, 44, was “sentenced to life imprisonment for premeditated murder and possession of a gun without permission.”

It is a show trial arranged

by the court and the government. I want

real justice for Kem Ley

The killer, who throughout has insisted the court address him by his nickname Chuob Samlab, which in Khmer means “meet to kill” – a moniker given to him during his years as a soldier – was calm as he heard his sentence.

He had previously told the court he shot his victim twice, including in the head, but had expressed his “regret” over a murder that stunned Cambodians.

The ruling is unlikely to bring closure to Kem Ley’s family or his sea of supporters, who believe the murder was politically motivated.

“It is a show trial arranged by the court and the government,” said Sar Sorn, a land rights activist who was among a small crowd gathered outside the court Thursday.

“I want real justice for Kem Ley.”

Tens of thousands turned out for Kem Ley’s funeral in scenes that rattled the government of ruling strongman Hun Sen.

The prime minister’s more than three decade rule has seen multiple critics murdered in unresolved cases, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Rights group say he has used strong-arm tactics to choke off dissent and hobble his rivals as a national election slated for 2018 approaches.

The crackdown has seen a slew of rival politicians and rights activists swept up in court cases, leaving an opposition party that made major gains in the previous poll facing an uphill battle.

Kem Ley was an articulate and prominent critic of Cambodian politicians of all colors.

Before his death he set up a grass-roots political movement, but it has since pulled plans to field candidates in looming local elections set for June.

In the days before his death, Kem Ley gave interviews on a report alleging Hun Sen’s family had amassed huge wealth.