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Warning to criminals: universal justice is back


The first convictions for crimes in Syria, the limitations of the International Criminal Court and the perseverance of some European courts spur transnational jurisdiction once again

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, on October 2, 2018.SABAH NEWSPAPER HANDOUT HANDOUT / EFE

Gibril Massaquoi has been called

the Judas of Sierra Leone


He is 52 years old and was a rebel commander of the Revolutionary United Front (that dreaded RUF, for its acronym in English).

Its history is bizarre.

They call him the Judas of Sierra Leone because it was there that he was born, fought and because, despite this, he ended up being an informer and collaborator of the international court launched in 2002 to try the crimes in the civil war that bled his country (1991-2002 ).

15 years after testifying, in March 2020, he was arrested in Finland, his host country and where he has been facing trial for crimes against humanity committed, this time, in Liberia.

An almost unexpected turn of events, while a very special example - part of the process has moved these days to Liberia itself - of the new impetus given by European judges to the principle of universal justice.

The step is marked by the German Prosecutor's Office with the Syrian file, but there are many more cases finding their way into the European courts.

Not in all, yes.

To speak of universal justice two decades ago was to speak of Spain.

On October 16, 1998, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London, under investigation by the Spanish National Court.

It was a paradigm of transnational jurisdiction: the arrest of an accused in one country by order of the judge of another to judge the crimes perpetrated in a third party.

He opened the way;

many European courts initiated processes to prosecute crimes against humanity committed far from their courts, especially in Africa and Latin America.

But Spain ceased to be a benchmark after the reforms of the law of the Judiciary, which left almost nothing that universal jurisdiction.

In parallel, the International Criminal Court, in operation in The Hague since 2002, overturned many of the hopes of justice in its initiative.

It didn't cover them all and this is where this


of universal jurisdiction



James Goldston is executive director of the Justice Initiative, one of the organizations that have collaborated in the file presented before the Karlsruhe Prosecutor's Office (Germany) for the crimes of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

You are in luck, on February 24, the High Court of Koblenz, in the west of the country, sentenced Eyad Alghareib, 44, a former agent of the Syrian secret services, to four and a half years in prison for collaborating in the arrest and torture of 30 prisoners.

"Yes, we see a new era or


of universal jurisdiction," he says on the phone from New York.

“The impact is very significant;

the world takes these crimes seriously, they cannot go unpunished ”.

For Goldston, these processes work if three criteria are met: a legal framework (that the country's law contemplates the exercise of universal justice), institutional capacity to develop the cause, and, above all - "the most important thing", he emphasizes— , political will.

In Germany all this happens;

also in Sweden, Norway, Austria, Finland, Switzerland ... Case by case: it is not the same to deal with the Syrian regime, with which a large part of the Western world does not make friends, than, for example, with China or Saudi Arabia.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounced five senior Saudi officials in Germany last week, including Prince Mohamed Bin Salmán, for crimes against humanity against 35 reporters, including Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in Turkey.

It is not the first time that RSF has tried to take advantage of the principle of universal justice - the Swedish Prosecutor's Office rejected its demand last January to investigate the disappearance of the Eritrean Dawit Isaak - but the organization does recognize that it is a new path that it is treading every time more in his defense of freedom of the press.

  • In search of a gap that recovers universal justice

The investigation of the crimes committed in Syria has dictated the new


of universal justice.

That and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to Europe (Germany, France, Nordic countries) that make it easy to find victims and perpetrators.

Both Alghareib and Anwar Raslan, 58, who was next in the German courthouse for executions and torture in the well-known Al Khatib prison (Damascus), arrived in Germanic lands as refugees in 2014.

But it is not easy to be successful with these processes.

Despite the pageantry of the conviction against Alghareib, historic in the fight against impunity for Assad's crimes, earlier, in September 2017, a Swedish court had already convicted a former Syrian military man, Mohamed Abdullah.

He was arrested for war crimes, but his involvement could not be proven.

A photo in which he appeared next to a pile of corpses allowed the Swedish justice to put him in prison for eight months for violation of the dignity of people.

According to data collected by the Justice Info portal, based in Lausanne (Switzerland), Swedish judges have another fifty cases linked to the Syrian war on their hands.

Add up and go on.

On March 2, the Syrian Archive, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and the aforementioned Justice Initiative filed a criminal lawsuit in France against members of the El Asad regime for chemical attacks in August 2013 in Duma and Eastern Ghouta. (surroundings of Damascus).

Along with them, a number of victims appeared on European soil that lawyers Jeanne Sulzer and Clémence Witt, representatives of the prosecution in Paris, have preferred not to specify.

Sulzer, in a telephone conversation, points out that this case is part of "the same judicial strategy" that is making its way in Germany and that more lawsuits like this may come in the future.

Why in France?

"Because France has denounced the use of chemical weapons [in Syria] regardless of the parties that have governed these years," responds the lawyer who is an expert in international law.

There is political will.

It has been two years of work to present the case in Paris, according to Sulzer, but there was a lot of documentation from organizations on the ground.

"We are witnessing recently," he continues, "of a proliferation of very creative ways [of resorting to universal justice] and of a very proactive role of some victims."

Helsinki to Monrovia

Finnish justice is not the only one to have its eye on the wars of the 1990s in West Africa.

Switzerland launched the trial in December against the 46-year-old Liberian rebel leader Alieu Kosiah, arrested in 2014 - a trial unparalleled in the history of Swiss justice.

He is accused of ordering murders, rapes and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Unlike the Finnish case, the Swiss court has brought victims and witnesses from Liberia.

Frenchman Thierry Cruvellier is editor of

Justice Info


He is these days precisely in Liberia following the part of the process against the


Gibril Massaquoi that is being developed for a few weeks on African soil.

"It is more efficient," he says on the phone, "to question the victims in Liberia than to do it in Finland."

Finnish judges have had permission from the Liberian government to work there.

Of course, with caution.

The trial is not news;

its publicity is very limited to avoid any social or political effect.

"It is not a perfect adventure", continues Cruvellier, "it is difficult to replicate this Finnish experiment because you need a state [like Liberia] that allows it."

The final process, the reading of arguments and the sentence will, however, take place in Finland.

Source: elparis

All news articles on 2021-03-08

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