War crimes round-up: Karim Khan in Ukraine, Sudanese victims against BNP Paribas, Gambian indicted in Germany

ICC Prosecutor Karim Asad Ahmad Khan QC, July 2021. In March 2022, Khan opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. (Credit:ICC-CPI)

Geneva Solutions is launching a new monthly "war criminal hunt" round-up, in collaboration with Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima, who will help us stay aboard the top cases. Here are a few words of introduction from its director, Alain Werner.

“The events of the past month and a half open spectacular and unprecedented doors for international justice. Never before since Nuremberg has an international prosecutor received such a mandate to prosecute political and military actors at the highest level of one of the three main nuclear world powers. This has happened now for Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as 39 countries, including Switzerland, requested him to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against Humanity committed in Ukraine, so far apparently mainly committed by Russian forces.

The topic of International crimes has been present everywhere for several weeks now, and unfortunately it looks as if this will not change for some time. This monthly round-up will give you a summary of the most interesting developments in the field of international criminal law, where Geneva plays an increasingly important role, with a number of cutting-edge and Geneva-based NGOs involved such as Civitas Maxima and TRIAL International, and UN mechanisms such as the International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism (IIIM) on Syria and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) on Myanmar.”

– Alain Werner, director, Civitas Maxima.

Karim Khan visited Ukraine. As part of the International Criminal Court's ongoing investigation into possible crimes committed by Russia, Karim Khan travelled to Poland and western Ukraine on 16 March, in a rare visit to a conflict zone by a top prosecutor. Khan met with Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba and prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova, and visited a refugee reception centre in Poland.

The chief prosecutor also held a virtual meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In a statement about the meeting, Khan said: “We were united in our view that every possible effort should be made to ensure that the conduct of hostilities does not give rise to breaches of international humanitarian law and that civilians are protected from the effects of conflict.”

Victims provide evidence on BNP Paribas in Sudan. The French war crimes unit is currently investigating on the involvement of French bank BNP Paribas in crimes against humanity, genocide, torture, as well as financial crimes committed in Sudan between 2002 and 2008. As the International Federation for Human Rights stated in a press release, four Sudanese victims were heard on March 18.“The civil parties’ testimonies help to expose the brutality of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and to highlight the need to prosecute the key enablers of atrocity crimes, including financial institutions. From Sudan to Russia and Ukraine, it is now clear that mass atrocities require mass funding”, Kristin Rosella, partner of Global Diligence, said.

The victims were assisted by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH), who are taking part in the investigations as civil parties, and the Global Diligence Alliance. According to lawyers of the civil parties Clémence Bectarte and Emmanuel Daoud, “an important milestone has been reached this week”.

Germany announced indictment of Gambian death squad member. On 3 March, the German office of the attorney general indicted “Bai L.”, alleged member of the so-called “Junglers” death squad of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Bai L. is accused of having committed crimes against humanity. During Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule that lasted until 2016 and which was marked by widespread human rights violations, he allegedly drove his “Jungler” accomplices to various crime scenes between 2003 and 2006.

According to Philip Grant, executive director of Geneva NGO, TRIAL International, the indictment is “meaningful in several ways”, because “it would lead to the opening of the first trial based on universal jurisdiction to judge the atrocities committed under Jammeh’s regime, and it would allow to shed light on the paramilitary unit of the Junglers and their ties to the former president, further preparing the ground for his prosecution.”

The Gambia is currently paving the way for a criminal conviction of President Jammeh himself. According to Just Security, the Gambian government will begin to review the proposals of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) it has appointed next Tuesday. Part of the proposals: Jammeh's criminal conviction under international law in a neighbouring state.

Sierra Leonean rebel leader released pre-verdict. In a very unexpected move, the judges of the Pirkanmaa District Court in Finland decided on 16 February to release Gibril Massaquoi, leader of rebel group RUF. His verdict is not expected until April.  Massaquoi is currently standing trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes he allegedly committed in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.The initial information about the rebel leader’s crimes were provided to the Finish authorities by Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.

Even though Presiding Judge Juhani Paiho told Front Page Africa in a Whatsapp message, that “this decision does not prejudice the coming verdict”, Masssaquoi’s release has widely been interpreted as a sign of a forthcoming acquittal on all accounts. In its written ruling, the court justified his release among other reasons with the "exceptionally long" period of 20 years that have passed since he committed the crimes. This seems to be rather an inconsistent explanation, because the United Nations decided in 1968 that war crimes and crimes against humanity are not subject to a statute of limitations.

Algerian general to face trial in Swiss court.  The Swiss Office of the Attorney General (OAG) conducted its final hearing on 8 February of Algerian general Khaled Nezzar, who served as minister of defence and led the military junta in Algeria at the beginning of the country’s civil war. Over ten years have passed since Nezzar was arrested in 2011 on the basis of a denunciation filed by TRIAL International, and now finally, the OAG held that during Nezzar’s tenure, numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed. The general will now be sent to trial before the Swiss Federal Criminal Court.

TRIAL International filed the criminal complaint against Nezzar together with Swiss authorities in 2001. On the TRIAL website, Nezzar’s final hearing was called a “giant step forward in the fight against impunity”.