A U.K.-based lawyer filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday, accusing leaders of Cambodia’s government of crimes against humanity for the systematic eviction of more than 700,000 people from their homes over the past 14 years.
Although a government representative said the complaint was groundless and politically motivated, an expert in international law said the ICC was likely to open a preliminary investigation into it.
The case put forth by attorney Richard Rogers argues that Cambodia’s “ruling elite”—who are not individually named in the complaint —organized widespread land grabbing over the past 14 years in order to further their political and financial interests.
“Crimes committed as part of this campaign include murder, forcible transfer of populations, illegal imprisonment, persecution, and other inhumane acts,” says a statement released Tuesday by Global Diligence LLP, Mr. Rogers’ law firm.
The complaint says those who resisted evictions over the past decade, or stood up on behalf of those being evicted, faced vicious retribution.
“Dissidents have been assassinated, murdered, beaten-up, subjected to trumped-up charges and illegal detention, and persecuted due [to] their opposition to the Ruling Elite,” the complaint says.
The crimes committed have “pushed this situation beyond the boundaries of human rights abuses and domestic crimes,” it continues. “The crimes fulfill all the legal elements of crimes against humanity.”
Mr. Rogers opened an investigation into alleged crimes committed by the government at the invitation of the opposition CNRP in January, after military police brutally suppressed nationwide garment-sector demonstrations by opening fire on a group of rock-throwing protesters on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Street, killing five people and wounding dozens more.
Over the course of his investigation, Mr. Rogers said he collected more than a decade’s worth of evidence from U.N. offices in the country, international human rights organizations and local NGOs.
Mr. Rogers’ complaint, filed on behalf of 10 Cambodian victims, claims that 770,000 people have been affected by land grabs in the country since 2000, 145,000 of whom were forcibly displaced in Phnom Penh alone during that time.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the figures in the complaint were inflated, and that the government was actively working to resolve land disputes across the country.
“The fact is, this is a groundless allegation and is politically polarized,” Mr. Siphan said. “We pay attention to those people [evictees] and we listen to their voice.”
But Clair Duffy, a lawyer at the International Bar Association in The Hague, said that the evidence laid out in the complaint would likely convince the ICC to launch a formal investigation into the allegations.
“I think there are strong chances that the complaint will move to phase two of the assessment—that is, that a preliminary examination will be formally commenced,” Ms. Duffy said in an email.
“From a cursory review of the complaint, there appears to be prima facie sound evidence of systematic human rights violations—and crimes—being carried out by Cambodian government agents over the past few years,” she added.
Cambodia ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute on March 11, 2002, giving the court jurisdiction over crimes committed in Cambodia or by its nationals beginning in July 2002.
Even if the ICC decides not to open an investigation into the complaint, the case put forward by Mr. Rogers will still send a message to the Cambodian government, said Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights, which helped compile the complaint.
“The idea is to prevent the government from committing further crimes—it’s a warning,” Mr. Giorgetta said. “It sends a clear signal and a signal the Cambodian government should listen to.”
Michael Karnavas, an international criminal lawyer who defended former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary before his death in 2013, said the allegations outlined in the complaint should be taken seriously but could be cast in a political light, as the CNRP initially announced Mr. Rogers’ investigation.
“Based on the initial press releases it appeared that Richard Rogers was working for or in conjunction with the CNRP, and that he had a result in mind before even completing the investigation,” Mr. Karnavas said by email.
Kem Monovithya, the deputy director of public affairs at the CNRP, said the party played only a limited role in the investigation.
“We connected the victims to the lawyers but were not involved beyond that,” Ms. Monovithya said.
“Cambodian courts have proven unwilling to deal with the complaints and the people of Cambodia do not believe in the court system here,” she added.
Mr. Rogers said the investigation was conducted independently.
“I know that some in Cambodia are trying to link this with the CNRP,” he said in an email.
“But the CNRP have not played a role in this investigation no matter how much the government kicks and screams and complains this is politicized.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)