WASHINGTON DC — A British lawyer has filed new documents against senior Cambodian officials at the International Criminal Court, accusing them of systematic land grabs that constitute human rights abuses.
Land activists and victims of forced evictions in Cambodia say they support the charges, filed by UK-based attorney Richard Rogers, and say they hope it forces government officials to revisit their development policies.
A communication filed on Oct. 7 claims that over the last 14 years, an estimated 770,000 Cambodians, or 6 percent of the population, have been hurt by land grabs, according to a statement from two groups, Global Diligence and the International Federation for Human Rights.
The filing “alleges that widespread and systematic land grabbing conducted by the Cambodian ruling elite for over a decade amounts to a crime against humanity,” the statement said. “The communication contends that senior members of the Cambodian government, its security forces, and government-connected business leaders carried out an attack on the civilian population with the twin objectives of self-enrichment and preservation of power at all costs. Crimes committed as part of this campaign include murder, forcible transfer of populations, illegal imprisonment, persecution, and other inhumane acts.”
Cambodian activists and evictees welcomed the complaint.
“If the process of litigation is intervened in by the ICC, we as people will be very happy,” said Yorm Bopha, a land activist from Phnom Penh. “We believe that the ruling Cambodian officials will be afraid of the ICC and won’t do things arbitrarily as before.”
Sal Hneuy, a representative of a minority hill tribe in Ratanakkiri province, said he would like ICC officials to see the hardships he and his people live under. “People are really glad about the complaint,” he said. “They are delighted about it.”
Um Sophy, a representative of land evictees from Kampong Chhnang province, told VOA Khmer she supports a complaint outside the court of Cambodia, which “is not independent and does not give justice to victims like us.”
“We used to file complaints to the court, but the court did not give us justice or fair judgment,” she said.
Rather than address the issues, Cambodian authorities have jailed activists, she said. “I would like the international court to act justly and to punish those who violate the land of the people of Cambodia and convict them according to the stipulations of international law.”
Land grabs have taken place in Cambodia increasingly over the last decades, affecting hundreds of thousands of families, especially for indigenous communities and the poor.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, which works with land grab victims, said each one typically involves a powerful Cambodian official or company. Forced evictions are damaging to people’s lives “and threatening to their security and safety,” he said.
Meanwhile, ongoing protests have brought little resolution, and only after major clashes with authorities, often armed in riot gear, with electric batons and shields.
“The result is that they receive a little bit, even though they sacrifice their bodies, to be electrified, beaten, kicked or jailed,” said Sia Phirum, secretariat director for the Housing Rights Task Force, an advocacy group for victims.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said authorities are working toward solving land disputes, including a policy of reform that does not allow officials to seize people’s land. “No official nor any elites are going to violate the land of the people or the public at all now,” he said. The government will revoke the licenses of companies that don’t meet requirements, he said. He called the filing at the ICC “an attack” for some groups to gain international attention.
Meanwhile, it is unclear what the ICC filing will do with the filing. The court has received similar complaints in the past, and it has declined to take action.