Updated at 7:30 p.m. EST on 2012-08-22
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sought more details from a Cambodian rights group over a complaint lodged on “crimes against humanity” allegedly committed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government against its people, according to the group.
Sourn Sereyratha, leader of the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), said the ICC had requested witness statements and more evidence to back the organization’s complaint submitted two months ago against the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“After submitting the complaint on June 22, which requested the court to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the Phnom Penh government, our lawyers are now working with the ICC prosecutor,” he told RFA’s Khmer service.
“The court has requested that we pass on additional evidence for further investigation.”
The KPPM complaint to the ICC alleges that the current Cambodian government has forcibly evicted more than 100,000 people from land the group says they have “legal title” to, and that members of the government are personally profiting from the use and sale of such land.
It said the land grabs may constitute a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC—a statute that Cambodia is bound to abide by.
The U.S.-based group cited “credible reports” of beatings, unjustified imprisonment, and killings of individuals who question or legally resist the forced evictions.
Ky Tech, an attorney for the Cambodian government, said he was unaware of any complaint having been filed with the ICC.
“I don’t have any details of the case, so I don’t have any comment,” he said.
The KPPM’s complaint is believed to have upset Hun Sen’s government.
A Cambodian radio station chief was arrested in July soon after he returned home from witnessing and reporting on the filing of the complaint at the ICC on June 22.
Senior CPP official Cheam Yeap acknowledged that land disputes are a problem in Cambodia, but dismissed the severity of the issue.
“During Hun Sen’s leadership, of course there have been some mistakes, but those mistakes are not serious enough to be considered crimes against humanity,” Cheam Yeap said.
“On what basis do they make this claim? Are they comparing development with genocide, such as during the Pol Pot regime?” he asked, referring to the 1975-1979 rule of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, during which up to two million Cambodians died of disease, exhaustion, starvation, and execution.
“If that was true, no one would want to work in the government or want to be the prime minister,” he said.
The surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership are currently facing a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.
“Hun Sen has led the country since 1985 and has plenty of experience. He is not an ignorant man,” Cheam Yeap said, adding that the ICC would not recognize the KPPM’s complaint against the prime minister as legitimate.
But independent analyst and former senior researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission Lao Mong Hay said it is a “positive sign” that the ICC had accepted the complaint.
“It shows that they have been paying attention. If there is substantial evidence, the court will investigate,” he said.
Lao Mong Hay said that if the complaint is accepted, the court would also make a ruling on whether the Cambodian government has the legal right to forcibly evict residents.
“For example, when the government demolishes people’s homes and relocates them to live in remote areas—is this a valid criminal charge?” he asked.
“If there is substantial evidence, the court will issue a warrant for summons or arrest.”
Clair Duffy, Khmer Rouge tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), said accusations of the Cambodian government committing crimes against humanity would have to be tried outside of the country due to a lack of independence in the national judicial system.
“When the ICC looks at the question of willingness and ability of the Cambodian courts to prosecute this themselves, they will look at the track record in Cambodia on the land rights issues and that routinely the people protesting about this are filing complaints—they never get anywhere,” Duffy said.
“Actually, when they protest, there is often a lot of police brutality around their peaceful protesting. So I think, really, Cambodia has made it clear that this is not going to be the forum to address these issues.”
She cited “routine impunity” for individuals who have assaulted peaceful protesters and even instances when people had been killed.
Duffy called forcible eviction “a huge problem” in Cambodia.
“The question really is whether [there is] evidence that this is part of a policy by the Cambodian government that raises this to the status of a crime against humanity,” she said.
“The preliminary reports of this problem in Cambodia are very, very serious and it’s really a matter now of whether the prosecutor of the ICC thinks it’s something that the international community is adequately concerned with to pursue it.”
The KPPM has also highlighted the recent arrest of Cambodia’s Association of Democrats leader Mam Sonando, whose group has been linked by the government to a land revolt involving more than 1,000 families in Kratie province who are being evicted by authorities from land they say they have farmed for years.
Cambodian authorities have said that the government owns the land, but activists contend that it had already been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
In May, the land row sparked a clash as a large number of military personnel carrying guns tried to disperse the families. In the melee, a 15-year-old girl was shot dead after she was struck by a bullet authorities say was intended as a warning shot.
Sonando, who is also the director of the independent Beehive Radio station, is in prison accused of sparking the land revolt. He faces 30 years imprisonment if convicted on all charges.
His arrest came after he visited the ICC in The Hague to cover the presentation of the complaint by the KPPM. Sonando's report was aired over Beehive Radio on June 25. The next day, Hun Sen publicly called for his arrest.
The activist voluntarily returned to Phnom Penh on July 12 and was arrested three days later.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country, leaving who owned what land under question.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Hun Sen has publicly spoken out against an increasing number of land seizures. But rights groups questioned his commitment to protecting the Cambodian people from illegal land grabs and forced evictions since he authorized land concessions to three private companies in May, just after announcing a moratorium on further grants.
Reported by Sok Ry of RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.