- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The French lawyer helping to represent Saddam Hussein plans to sue the British government for war crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC), one of a growing number of appeals to the new world court to try U.S. and British soldiers and officials over the war in Iraq.

Legal analysts said yesterday there was almost no chance the ICC would agree to hear the case, but critics of the fledgling world court say the filing itself is a mark of the growing politicization of the court by opponents of the U.S.-led reconstruction mission in Iraq.

“Essentially, those who don’t like the war or U.S. foreign policy goals have a great new forum to accuse the United States and its allies of torturing and killing people as a matter of policy,” said Jack Spencer, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for International Studies.

Jacques Verges, who has represented such notorious clients as Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and international hit man Carlos the Jackal, told reporters in Paris last week that the filing was being made on behalf of “families of prisoners of the coalition in which Britain participates.”

“The reality of torture and systematic abuses of the dignity of Iraqi prisoners, sometimes followed by murders, both by U.S. and British troops, is no longer in question,” according to the filing with The Hague-based court.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair has refused comment on the filing, saying it was a pending legal matter. Officials at the ICC could not be reached for comment yesterday, but have also refused to talk in the past about filings made by individuals.

The United States, which has rejected the treaty establishing the court, is not named as a party in Mr. Verges’ filing. Britain is a member-state of the ICC, as are Italy, Poland and other nations contributing to the military coalition in Iraq.

Iraq’s new governing council has also not ratified the ICC treaty, which means the court has no direct jurisdiction over U.S. military and civilian personnel now in Iraq.

And because Iraq under Saddam also never ratified the ICC, the court never investigated widespread and heavily documented human rights complaints of horrific abuse, torture and murder by members of Saddam’s regime against political dissidents and prisoners.

Despite its lack of direct jurisdiction, the ICC has been flooded with suits from around the globe on Iraq, even before the recent revelations of suspected prison abuse by U.S. and British forces in the country.

Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said last year that the court had received more than 100 requests to investigate actions by U.S. and allied troops since the start of the war, but that all had been rejected.

In a typical filing, 20 human rights lawyers in Greece tried to sue Mr. Blair and his senior advisers at the ICC for violating international law by, according to the complaint, invading Iraq, killing citizens, and depriving the population of food and drinking water in the postwar period.

ICC defenders say the fact that the world court, which officially opened in June 2002, has not accepted any of the Iraq-related lawsuits is proof that the fears of critics have been vastly overstated.

John Washburn serves as a coordinator for the New York-based American NGO Coalition for the ICC, an umbrella group for human rights, legal and religious organizations that support U.S. membership in the court.

He said the court’s founding statutes call for it to intervene only in cases where the government involved proves itself unwilling or incapable of investigating the abuses itself. That is obviously not the case with Britain or the United States, both of which have launched investigations into the prisoner abuse charges.

“The people who set up the ICC did not want to get distracted dealing with countries that have ample means for dealing with these problems on their own,” Mr. Washburn said. “There’s a very high threshold here, and the court is being properly prudent.”

He said that the only two cases where the ICC has announced plans to begin an investigation are in Congo and Uganda, where the local judicial authorities cannot cope with the charges of massive brutality and war crimes.

Mr. Blair’s political woes over Iraq increased yesterday with the announcement by rebel lawmaker George Galloway that he was filing a suit in British courts based in part on ICC statutes charging the prime minister and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon with war crimes and torture following press accounts of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British forces.

Mr. Galloway was ousted from the ruling Labor Party for his pro-Saddam views.

The Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Spencer said that even though the ICC would probably reject the latest Iraq case, Mr. Verges’ filing pointed to continuing weaknesses in the court’s makeup.

“There is no way to protect governments such as the United States from the nuisance and distraction of politically motivated accusations,” Mr. Spencer said.

“There are safeguards, but they are not sufficient and certainly not strong enough to merit giving up our own legal protections under the Constitution,” he said.

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