Thanks to a landmark court ruling, prosecuting human rights abusers may have just got a whole lot easier.
All around the world, activists and lawyers are constantly frustrated by national and international legal processes that prevent the prosecution of human rights abusers. Or of war criminals. But now, a leading judge in Spain has declared that courts will hear a human rights abuse case, involving allegations of false imprisonment, torture and murder. The victim – a Syrian national.
The current case involves a truck driver who was arrested, tortured and murdered. Spanish judge Eloy Velasco ruled that, under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, relatives of people who have disappeared or died from crimes committed elsewhere are also victims. In this particular case, the victim’s sister lives in Madrid and is now a Spanish citizen.
The accused are nine individuals. They include Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, head of the National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk, head of air force intelligence Gen. Jamil Hassan, and senior officers running the prison where the victim was detained and killed.
Stephen Rapp, fellow at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, helped to file the Syrian case. He says that lawyers could have international arrest warrants issued in less than a month or two.
Details of what happened to the driver emerged after a Syrian forensic officer known as ‘Caesar’ defected in September 2013. He fled the country with more than 50,000 photographs of victims on a thumb drive. The pictures Caesar took include images of the bodies of more than 6,000 victims.
David Crane, an investigator involved in examining the photos, said:
It is very rare to have this kind of government-backed, industrial, machine like, systematic torture and killing of human beings. The likes of which we haven’t seen since Nuremberg.
A December 2016 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) backed the authenticity of the photographs. A confidential report by solicitors in London agreed with those findings. Caesar’s descriptions also match accounts of brutal interrogation methods used at 27 Syrian detention facilities and collected by HRW in 2012.
Implications of the ruling
Universal Jurisdiction can apply to human rights abusers everywhere; not just to authoritarian regimes. The most famous case was perhaps that of another Spanish judge – Baltasar Garzon. This saw an arrest warrant issued against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while he was visiting London in 1998. Pinochet was kept under house arrest in Britain for 18 months. That is, until he was controversially released on the orders of Foreign Minister Jack Straw.
Here are just three examples of how Universal Jurisdiction can be applied more widely:
- Political leaders who sanction arms deals to countries committing abuses. For example, Theresa May and Britain’s arming of Saudi Arabia to kill thousands of civilians in Yemen.
- CEOs of companies involved in managing illegal or arbitrary detention. For example, the CEO of Ferrovial, which owns Broadspectrum; the company that manages the illegal detention of refugees on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru on behalf of the Australian government.
- A politician who directly authorises ethnic cleansing. Such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has arranged the widespread destruction of Kurdish-populated cities in south-east Turkey.
How Universal Jurisdiction works
The Spanish judge can only apply the practice of Universal Jurisdiction where a victim is directly related to a Spanish national. But any judges in any other part of the world can do the same.
Once a case has been presented, an arrest warrant can be issued. And if the accused cannot be brought to court, a trial can start without their presence.
If prosecution proves successful, courts can order an individual’s arrest anywhere in the world at any time; along with the seizure of their assets.
No hiding place
Almudena Bernabéu of the Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, which is acting for the Syrian victim’s sister, stated:
This is an extremely important decision, not just when it comes to getting justice for the victims. But also in terms of the need for national courts to investigate and try international crimes, when the international criminal court (ICC) cannot.
And indeed, there should be no hiding place for human rights abusers or war criminals. Whoever they are and wherever they may be.
Featured image via HRW (screengrab)
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