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U.S. Revokes Visa of I.C.C. Prosecutor Pursuing Afghan War Crimes

The United States has revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor because of her attempts to investigate allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, including any that may have been committed by American forces.

The visa revocation -- confirmed on Friday by the office of the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and the State Department in Washington -- was assailed by rights advocates as unprecedented interference by the United States into the workings of the court, established nearly two decades ago to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Ms. Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer for the court, which is based in The Hague, formally requested an investigation more than a year ago into war crimes in Afghanistan. The inquiry would mostly focus on large-scale crimes against civilians attributed to the Taliban and Afghan government forces.

But it would also examine alleged C.I.A. and American military abuse in detention centers in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, and at sites in Poland, Lithuania and Romania, putting the court directly at odds with the United States.

An I.C.C. panel of judges has yet to authorize whether the prosecutor can open the criminal investigation.

The revocation of Ms. Bensouda's visa came less than a month after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to revoke visas for those connected with court investigations involving American citizens.

The United States is not a member state of the I.C.C. and does not recognize the court's authority to prosecute Americans.

In the past, though, the United States has cooperated with the court on other investigations, and Washington played a central role in establishing international criminal law at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and in the creation of modern tribunals.

"The U.S.A. government should actively invite the prosecutor to come and meet, not ban her from traveling," Amnesty International's Center for International Justice said on Twitter. "Cooperation with the I.C.C. is in the U.S.A.'s interests -- to share relevant information and show there is nothing to hide."

The USA government should actively invite the Prosecutor to come and meet, not ban her from travelling. Cooperation with the ICC is in the USA's interests - to share relevant information and show there is nothing to hide.@ngos4justice @amnestyusa @amnestypress @usembthehague
-- Amnesty Centre for International Justice (@AmnestyCIJ) April 5, 2019

Mr. Pompeo, in a March news briefing in Washington, said investigators "should not assume that you will still have or will get a visa, or that you will be permitted to enter the United States" if they are part of a I.C.C. investigation. He also said the United States was prepared to take further action.

"These visa restrictions will not be the end of our efforts," Mr. Pompeo said at the time. "We are prepared to take additional steps, including economic sanctions if the I.C.C. does not change its course."

At the time of Mr. Pompeo's announcement, Human Rights Watch called the announcement of visa bans an effort to "bully the court and deter scrutiny of U.S. conduct."

Mr. Pompeo's remarks also drew condemnation from I.C.C. member states, with a group of 22 foreign ministers expressing their concerns over the move last month.

The decision to revoke Ms. Bensouda's visa is not expected to affect her access to the United Nations headquarters in New York, which is protected by an agreement between the United States and the global body.

She periodically travels to the United Nations to brief the Security Council on investigations into crimes in Libya and the Darfur region of Sudan, which were referred to the court by the council.

It will also not affect her ability to carry out her duties at the I.C.C. or to move forward with a potential investigation, Ms. Bensouda has said.

Asked on Friday about the visa decision by the Americans, a United Nations spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, reiterated its diplomatic agreement with the United States.

"We very much trust the United States government will continue to comply with its obligations under the agreement," Mr. Dujarric said. "Our assumption is that the prosecutor, when she needs to come to the United Nations, will be afforded a visa for work done at the United Nations."

Ms. Bensouda is the only known court official targeted by Washington so far, but the issue raises the question of whether, if the Afghanistan investigation moves ahead, other officials would be barred from the United States.

Last week, the president of the court, Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, was able to deliver a speech in Washington without any issues. But the United States has made it clear that it would not cooperate in any potential Afghanistan investigation.

The United States is not the first country to have barred senior court officials. A former I.C.C. prosecutor and staff members were effectively denied entry to Sudan by its ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted on charges of genocide and other crimes; and Ms. Bensouda and her team were denied entry to Burundi to investigate charges against its president.

In recent years the I.C.C. has disappointed some of its backers, who have observed its slow pace, inefficiencies and internal squabbles -- and how many member governments only offer it halfhearted support, and fail to carry out court-ordered arrest warrants. Some of those supporters saw the Trump administration's action as another blow to the body, albeit a double-edged one.

"This move hurts the U.S.'s reputation far more than it hinders the I.C.C. prosecutor," said Stephen Rapp, a former American ambassador for war crimes issues who also served as an international prosecutor.

"In the past we have always been on the side of prosecutorial and judicial independence, and against authoritarian regimes that demand that justice bend to political power," he said. By revoking the visa, he said, "we act like we have something to hide and in the process put ourselves on the same side as the world's thugs and dictators."

[Source: By Marlise Simons and Megan Specia, The New York Times, Paris, 05Apr19]

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