A Cambodian man walks on mud past a sand-pumping pipe filling the Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom-Penh, May 25, 2011 (AFP Photo/Christophe Archambault)
Victims of land grabs by Cambodia's "ruling elite" on Tuesday called for the International Criminal Court to probe their mass evictions as a crime against humanity.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have been affected as part of a "widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, pursuant to state policy," said a complaint to be filed at The Hague-based ICC.
"The ruling elite have illegally seized and re-allocated millions of hectares of valuable land from poor Cambodians for exploitation or speculation by its members and foreign investors," said the complaint to be filed on behalf of victims by lawyer Richard Rogers on Tuesday.
Aid groups estimate that 770,000 people, or six percent of Cambodia's population, have been evicted since 2000, including 20,000 people in the first three months of 2014.
At least 4,000,000 hectares of land have been confiscated, which represents 22 percent of Cambodia's total land area, often for lucrative rubber or sugar plantations.
"Anyone who resists is being shot, raped, wrongfully prosecuted," Rogers told AFP. "The violations of human rights are massive."
"All this for the tiny elite ruling over the country to get richer and to retain power."
Land grab victims are either sent to resettlement camps or left with nowhere to go, he said.
While Western countries have tried to condition aid on human rights, increasingly China is "giving money without asking questions," Rogers said.
The "ruling elite" has quelled resistance with attacks on civil society leaders, monks, journalists, lawyers, environmental activists and protesters, the complaint said, allegedly including over 300 politically motivated murders since the 1990s.
"There is a reasonable basis to believe that members of the ruling elite have committed, aided and abetted, ordered and/or incited the crimes of forcible transfer, murder, illegal imprisonment, other inhumane acts."
Anyone can file a complaint with the office of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and she must decide whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant an official investigation.
Cambodia has ratified the court's Rome Statue, meaning the ICC has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes committed there since 2002.
"Entire villages have been burned to the ground and possessions stolen or destroyed" by the police, the army and private security firms supported by "the state apparatus," the complaint said.
"Dissidents have been brutally murdered by professional assassins or condemned to linger in jail on spurious charges."
Land titles are a murky issue in Cambodia where private ownership was abolished during the 1975-1979 rule of the communist Khmer Rouge and many legal documents were lost.
It is up to the ICC prosecutor to decide which individuals to prosecute, the complaint said, adding that Cambodia's justice system was not prosecuting any of the allegations, leaving it up to the ICC to intervene.
Day of protests
The Phnom Penh Post reported that more than 1,000 protesters from some 50 communities affected by land grabbing marched in the capital to mark World Habitat Day on Monday.
Speaking to a crowd outside the National Assembly, Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Lork Kheng, deputy chair of the assembly’s Commission on Human Rights and Complaints, said she would push government departments to solve land disputes.
“We support on-site development … [and] not pushing people from their homes,” Kheng said. “We will push for other [government] departments to solve these problems. Every one of your requests will be debated within the commission.”
Contacted after the protest, Kheng did not say which disputes would be given priority.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of Housing Rights Task Force, welcomed the pledge from the CPP and said that the promise of on-site development “sounds great”.
“[Kheng] said this mandate is different from previous mandates,” he said. “So we hope that she will not cheat the voters.”
“They seldom allow the poor to live near their development project,” he said. “They prefer to buy other land to exchange with us.”
Sources: AFP and the Phnom Penh Post