Cambodia land grab victims seek ICC 'crimes against humanity' probe

Channel News| 7 October 2014

Cambodia land grab victims seek ICC 'crimes against humanity' probe
Cambodian activists march during the 29th World Habitat day in Phnom Penh on October 6, 2014. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

The Hague: Victims of land grabs by Cambodia's "ruling elite" called on Tuesday (Oct 7) 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 6 per cent 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 (10 million acres) of land have been confiscated, which represents 22 per cent of Cambodia's 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.

Worse Than Pol Pot

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."

One eviction to make way for a development in Phnom Penh in January 2009 saw police armed with guns, electric and steel batons, wooden sticks, tear gas and water canon forcibly remove 400 families.

"When I saw the eviction it really was worse than Pol Pot," said an unnamed social worker and eviction victim, referring to the late leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. "During the Khmer Rouge people were evacuated from Phnom Penh, but they did not destroy the houses and give all the land to an individual."

Land titles are a murky issue in Cambodia where private ownership was abolished during the 1975 to 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.

The threat of a probe may encourage the Cambodian government to change its policies or pursue the alleged crimes in domestic courts, which would head off an ICC investigation.

- AFP/nd

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