U.N. war crimes panel seeks access to Syria


BEIRUT -– A United Nations-backed panel investigating alleged war crimes in Syria says it has asked to meet with President Bashar Assad soon in order for its team to gain access inside the country.

Members of the panel are seeking the meeting with Assad "without any conditions," said Brazilian diplomat Sergio Pinheiro, who is heading the panel, according to the Associated Press.

The four-member panel, which includes former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, has been asked to continue its investigation until at least March. Del Ponte said the probe is looking into suspected "crimes against humanity and war crimes" during Syria's increasingly bloody conflict, which has left more than 30,000 dead, the AP reported.

The request from the panel comes a day after U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi announced that the Syrian government and some rebel forces had agreed to a cease-fire for the Eid Al-Adha holiday, which begins on Friday. The U.N. Security Council unanimously backed the proposed temporary truce.

"We hope to build on it and aim for a lasting and solid cease-fire," Brahimi said.

But amid already existing doubts over the likelihood of the cease-fire going into effect, the government and rebel groups further put the possible truce into question Wednesday. Syria's Foreign Ministry said military commanders were still studying the proposal, and the Free Syrian Army's fragmented armed groups have expressed different positions on the cease-fire.

"We will observe it as long as the regime does," said Col. Qassim Saad Eddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, adding, "we don't expect them to observe it for even one minute."


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Photo: Sergio Pinheiro, chairman of the commission looking into war crimes in Syria, and commission member Carla del Ponte hold a news conference Thursday at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva. Credit: Martial Trezzini / Keystone

Guantanamo terrorism convictions proving vulnerable on appeal

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Salim Hamdan has been home in his native Yemen for nearly four years since completing his sentence at Guantanamo Bay for providing "material support to terrorism" -- six years of domestic service to Osama bin Laden as gardener, bodyguard and driver.

GlobalFocusOne of only seven Guantanamo captives to be sentenced for alleged war crimes by the Pentagon's military commissions, Hamdan had his conviction vacated this week by a unanimous federal appeals court panel on grounds that the assistance he provided the late Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan wasn't defined as a war crime until five years after his 2001 capture.

Hamdan is already at liberty and moving on with his life, his pro bono attorney reported Thursday after informing his client by telephone that his appeal was successful. The 40-year-old taxi driver with a fourth-grade education was pleased to be cleansed of the "war criminal" label but doesn't plan to pursue an uphill battle for compensation, said the attorney, Harry Schneider of Seattle.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.

The ruling will serve as binding precedent in the appeals of other Guantanamo detainees convicted for war crimes ex post facto, Schneider predicted. The next likely beneficiary of the tribunal's overreaching prosecutions, defense attorneys say, could be defiant Al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.

Within hours of the decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Australian convict David Hicks' lawyer announced that he would seek to have his client's guilty plea revoked and conditions of his release to Australia stricken. Attorney Stephen Kenny also said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Co. that he would pursue compensation for Hicks and an investigation of whether the Canberra government aided and abetted his wrongful imprisonment.

A kangaroo skinner who trained at an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan before fleeing the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hicks was arrested trying to cross into Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for six years. He was released to his homeland as part of his plea deal, which prohibits him from appealing his case or disclosing details of his experience for monetary gain.

Bahlul, a Yemeni like Hamdan, also was convicted at his uncontested 2008 trial of solicitation of murder in a recruiting video he produced for Al Qaeda. David Glazier, an international law professor at Loyola Law School, said legal scholars began speculating that the solicitation charge might be ruled beyond the commissions' jurisdiction after the same Washington appeals court that threw out material support as a legal charge canceled oral arguments in the Bahlul appeal just before it issued the Hamdan decision.

"There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about whether or not this means the end of conspiracy as well," said Glazier, who was a career Navy surface warfare officer before earning his law degree.

Only one of the seven Guantanamo convictions has involved crimes recognized as a violation of the international law of war: the murder, attempted murder and spying charges against Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was recently transferred to Canadian custody to serve out the six years left on his term.

Prosecutors at the military commissions have relied on material support and conspiracy to get convictions or plea bargains in the few completed cases, but Glazier argues that those "inchoate offenses" aren't considered war crimes under international law. Only after Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act did the Guantanamo tribunal have jurisdiction to try suspects for those crimes, said the appeals court panel, which is made up entirely of Republican appointees.

J. Wells Dixon, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to hundreds of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo since 2002, predicted that "conspiracy is the next military commissions charge on the chopping block."

"The Hamdan decision is significant because it is an illustration of the inherent problems in creating a second-rate system of justice that we make up as we go along," he said of the commissions, the original version of which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006, prompting a hurried redo, the Military Commissions Act, three months later.

Five "high-value detainees" facing death penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been in the Guantanamo courtroom this week, bringing pretrial motions and theatrics to the forum.

In the first prosecution on charges widely accepted as war crimes, Army Col. James Pohl, the presiding judge, has been inundated with peripheral considerations, such as whether self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be allowed to wear a camouflage hunter's vest in the courtroom to project a warrior image.

Pohl has also had to rule on whether mold and rodent infestation at the defense attorneys work space on the remote base compromises their ability to prepare for trial, and whether any mention of mistreatment during CIA interrogations risks revealing national security secrets.

"Regardless of the underlying conduct and the quality of evidence the government presents at trial, there is no certainty that those convictions will stand" federal civilian court review, Dixon said. "For the Obama administration to continue to pursue military commissions charges is a real gamble."


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Photo: Artist's sketch shows alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, speaking with a member of his legal team during a hearing at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Credit: Janet Hamlin


Rights group: Libya didn't investigate deaths of Kadafi loyalists


Despite promises to do so, Libya has failed to investigate the deaths of scores of people loyal to late strongman Moammar Kadafi, who appear to have been executed after his capture last year in “a bloody revenge,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released Wednesday.

The report sheds new light on the downfall of Kadafi in October 2011 and its aftermath. Though exactly how the Libyan leader was killed remains murky, the rights group argues that videos and other evidence indicate vengeful militias from the city of Misurata captured, disarmed and executed at least 66 people from his convoy at a hotel in Surt that same day.

Many of the corpses had their hands tied behind their backs, it reported. Videos of Kadafi's son Mutassim suggest he was taken to Misurata and killed, Human Rights Watch said. Footage of Moammar Kadafi himself calls into question whether he was killed in crossfire, showing militia fighters stabbing his buttocks with a bayonet.

“We understood there needed to be a trial, but we couldn’t control everyone,” Eastern Coast militia brigade commander Khalid Ahmed Raid told the rights group. “Some acted beyond our control.”

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Former Balkan leader proclaims innocence of genocide charges

KaradzicLONDON -- Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared his innocence and argued that he tried to stop the violent 1990s conflict in his Balkans homeland as he began his defense against war crimes charges Tuesday before an international tribunal in The Hague.

The ex-president of the wartime Republika Sprska faces 10 counts of genocide and related war crimes  committed during the Balkan conflict that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

“Instead of being accused, I should be rewarded for all the good things I’ve done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war," said Karadzic, 67, who looked relaxed but resigned with a professorial air. "The number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the number reported.” 

Karadzic stands accused of aiding and abetting some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, committed primarily against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He is charged with having a hand in the notorious killing of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica; in the “sniping and shelling to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of Sarajevo” resulting in the death of thousands of civilians; and in the taking of hostages, including U.N. peacekeepers and military observers, to use as a human shields against NATO airstrikes.

“Everybody who knows me knows that I am not an autocrat ... that I am not intolerant, on the contrary I am a mild-mannered man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others,” Karadzic told the court as he denied the charges.

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Europe tackles torture allegations that were swept aside in U.S.

European courts trying torture cases
When CIA agents nabbed an Egyptian cleric on the streets of Milan, Italy,  and whisked him off for interrogation in a country that turned a blind eye to torture, they violated international law and were justly sentenced to prison, Italy's highest court has ruled in a landmark case against the U.S. counter-terrorism tactic known as "extraordinary rendition."

GlobalFocusThe final judgment by Italy's Court of Cassation on Wednesday upheld the convictions of 23 American operatives for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. Their five- and seven-year prison terms meted out by a lower court three years ago were not only upheld but extended by two years, although it appeared unlikely that  any of the convicted U.S. operatives would be surrendered to serve their time.

Human rights advocates concede that  the legal judgment against rendition is mostly symbolic. Unless Italy seeks extradition -- something Washington has been fighting fiercely, leaked diplomatic cables suggest -- the only punishment the Americans are likely to face is the threat of arrest if they travel to Europe or nations elsewhere that might elect to fulfill commitments under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Despite the limited reach of the Italian court's decision, rights advocates have applauded the ruling as evidence that European courts are willing to bring to justice those who violate the law in the so-called war on terror, even though the U.S. government has declined to do so.

Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro, who brought the case against the Americans and a few Italian intelligence agents complicit in Nasr's abduction, declared that the high court ruling is a definitive judgment that rendition is "incompatible with democracy." He said a government decision on whether to seek extradition wouldn't be expected until the high court issues its full written opinion, which could take two to three more months.

The CIA did not respond to a call and email from The Times asking for comment on the Italian court ruling and whether the agency is advising the convicted Americans against foreign travel.

The United States has an extradition treaty with Italy, and any request for Washington to deliver the Americans to serve their prison terms would be difficult for the U.S. government to ignore, said former Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a former chief prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay war-crimes tribunal who was forced to retire after criticizing U.S. handling of terrorism suspects.

"If the Italians were to submit an extradition request, there would be no legal basis for us not to comply," Davis said. "I’m sure there’ll be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling on the Italian government not to submit the request."

The Italian case isn't the only one threatening to spotlight legal breaches by American agents since Sept. 11, Davis said. He pointed out that most of the legal actions abroad in defiance of the Obama administration's decision to "look forward, not back" on counter-terrorism excesses are coming from allied countries, "not Iran or Cuba or Venezuela."

Abu Omar insertA Spanish judge in 2009 ordered an investigation of torture allegations at Guantanamo Bay. Polish authorities are demanding full disclosure of the former government's complicity in CIA detention and interrogation of rendition subjects at a remote secret prison there. The British government has paid compensation to citizens and legal residents released after abusive CIA interrogations, including plaintiffs whose cases were thrown out of U.S. courts when the George W.  Bush and Obama administrations claimed that to try them would expose "state secrets." In Canada, the government has apologized to and compensated Maher Arar, a citizen nabbed by U.S. agents while traveling home from Tunisia in 2002 and sent to Syria for "enhanced interrogation."

Nasr, an Egyptian-born imam, was suspected of recruiting men from his Milan mosque to fight U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the impetus for his Feb. 17, 2003, abduction and delivery to a secret interrogation site in his homeland. He said he was beaten, bound and blindfolded for months in a cold cell and subjected to electrical shocks to his genitals while being questioned.

A lower Italian court found the 23 Americans guilty in 2009 and sentenced former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady to seven years in prison and the others to five years' detention. The high court stiffened those sentences by two years and sent back to the lower court several cases against Italian agents involved in the Nasr rendition that had been dismissed on immunity claims.

While the Italian judiciary, like that of the United States, has no power to enforce its rulings if the government fails to request extradition, the rendition judgment serves a powerful symbolic purpose in branding those who would violate laws against torture as criminals, said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program of the American Civil Liberties Union. He pointed out an array of other legal challenges to rendition and warrantless detention brought by former terrorism suspects that are making their way through foreign and multinational courts.

The Italian ruling this week, Dakwar said, "sent a strong message that if the United States fails to hold accountable its own officials for human rights violations that European countries will do so."


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Photo: A police officer stands guard at the Milan trial of 23 Americans involved in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian cleric. European and international courts are prosecuting cases of alleged torture of terrorism suspects despite the U.S. government's policy against exposing its counter-terrorism practices to the judgment of the courts. Credit: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP/Getty Images

Insert: Egyptian-born cleric  Hassan Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, says he was kidnapped in Milan and tortured in an Egyptian prison. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Press

Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

Assad posters near aleppo
With no end in sight for the bloody fratricide ravaging Syria, and with the world's most powerful nations bitterly divided over what to do next, U.S. and European diplomats have redirected their efforts from trying to halt the civil war to planning for a new Syria once it is over.

GlobalFocusThe blueprints emerging are necessarily vague, given that no one yet knows how or when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will fall or what constellation of political opponents will replace it. The proposals also lack any common strategy, reflecting discordant views among advocates of a free Syria on how best to aid the outgunned rebels. Washington is more wary than its allies of sending arms that could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have infiltrated the civil war to gain a new foothold in the Middle East.

French President Francois Hollande this week called on rebel factions to cobble together a transitional government that the international community can officially recognize and work with. But U.S. diplomats and political analysts argue that Assad's opponents are too fractious to put forward a united front or cohesive strategy for the war's end game. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney equally loath to endorse bolder action on Syria -- fearing another costly, faraway conflict -- responsibility for contingency planning has fallen to academia instead of the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace issued "The Day After" plan for a post-Assad Syria. The 133-page statement of goals and principles for a new Syria was six months in the making. It was produced by 45 Syrian opposition figures brought together by the State Department-funded institute's Middle East experts and partners from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. It is long on institution-building wonk-speak and short on how the opposition is supposed to get to the post-Assad era. But analysts hailed it as a worthy undertaking even as government and rebel forces are mired in protracted battles to control key areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

No representatives of the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime were party to the post-Assad project, said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives who coordinated the talks among Syrian exiles, defectors and regime opponents who managed to travel abroad or participate via video linkup.

"The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen," instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.

While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving "a Wild West quality" to help for the underdog rebels.

"The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process," said Charles Ries, a career diplomat heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.  "But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence."

The task eluding the United States and its allies is uniting the disparate opposition forces inside and outside Syria into a cohesive leadership that they can support and ratchet up the pressure on Assad, Ries said. 

Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts' concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be "ill-advised," he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn't broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.

"This administration is nowhere near doing that," Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership.

That said, initiatives like "The Day After" are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.

"This is the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. entity to date to think about scenarios for after Assad," Saab said of the peace institute project. "It's not putting the cart before the horse."


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Photo: A rebel supporter treads on posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad lining the floor of a Free Syrian Army office in the town of Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. Fighting has ground into a bloody impasse as international mediators differ on how to end the 17-month-old conflict. In Washington, the U.S. presidential election has relegated the Syrian civil war  to the diplomatic sidelines. Credit: Phil Moore / AFP/Getty Images

Killers in Syrian massacre remain a mystery

Houla protest
Who did it?

Who murdered more than 100 people, mostly women and children,  in the Syrian township of Houla?

The May 25-26 massacre outraged the world and galvanized international opposition against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Many victims were executed in their homes, shot and, in some cases, stabbed. Video of the bloody aftermath soon made its way onto YouTube. Some called the atrocity  a turning point in the more than yearlong uprising against Assad.

A preliminary United Nations inquiry, based on statements to U.N. observers who arrived in Houla hours after the killings, indicated  that pro-government paramilitary men known as shabiha were responsible for the atrocity. The implication was that the people were killed for sectarian reasons or because of perceived sympathy for the rebellion.  

But Syrian authorities disputed the findings and conducted their own investigation. Initial findings blamed the killings on “terrorists” -- the government’s standard characterization of armed rebels -- who allegedly targeted pro-government residents, including the extended family of a parliament member in Damascus.

The U.N. promised a more extensive inquiry. And now the results are in. They're inconclusive.

A special commission of inquiry reported Wednesday to the U.N. Human Rights Council that it could not rule out either side as the potential perpetrators of the crimes.  Nor could it eliminate a third possibility: that the killers were “foreign groups with unknown affiliation.”

The U.N.-commissioned inquiry was exhaustive, but it suffered a major shortcoming: Investigators were not allowed to enter Syria, much less visit  Houla. Instead, they relied on interviews conducted via telephone or Skype; some face-to-face  interviews with people who had left the country; and sundry documentation, including photos and video of the scene and satellite images from before and after the killings.

The U.N. inquiry, like the government report and several other accounts,  found that most of those killed were from two area families, with the surnames Abdulrazzak and al-Sayed. They lived in Taldou, one of several towns that make up Houla township. The area is mostly Sunni Muslim, but there are villages nearby that are home to the Shiite and Alawite sects. The U.N. inquiry was unable to determine whether the targeted families  “had loyalties one way or another.”

The inquiry examined  the reported  positions of rebel and army forces at the time of the massacre, seeking to find out who had the most direct access to the doomed families’ homes.  It was a complex and inexact  process, exacerbated by the lack of access to the scene.

 No definitive answers were forthcoming, though the investigation did conclude that government forces “may have been responsible for many of the deaths.”

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Photo: A youth holds a doll bearing the words "The children of Houla" during a protest this month against the May massacre in Syria. Credit: Ahmad Gharabliahmad / AFP/Getty Images


Former Liberian President Charles Taylor gets 50 years for war crimes

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Former Liberian President Charles Taylor will likely spend the rest of his life in jail after a U.N.-backed court sentenced him to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes.

Taylor , 64, is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court for war crimes since World War II.

He was convicted of helping plan war crimes with Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, trading arms with them in return for so-called blood diamonds. During their 1991-2002 reign of terror, the rebels were known for amputating limbs, raping women and girls, recruiting and using child soldiers and forcing girls and women to become sex slaves.

Taylor was convicted last month on 11 counts, including terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, outrages on personal dignity, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillage. He will serve his  sentence in Britain.

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Trial of Bosnian military leader Ratko Mladic is suspended

The war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the wars of the 1990s, was suspended after the judge declared that the prosecution had failed to hand over evidence to the defense
This story has been updated. See the note below.

LONDON -- The war-crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the wars of the 1990s, was suspended Thursday after the judge declared that the prosecution had failed to hand over evidence to the defense.

Presiding Judge Alfons Orie told the court in The Hague that "in light of the prosecution's significant disclosure errors ... the chamber hereby informs the parties that it has decided to suspend the start of the presentation of evidence." The trial had begun Wednesday.

The announcement came after Peter McCloskey, speaking for the prosecution, wound up his opening statement before the International Criminal Tribunal. He had outlined what prosecutors say are the crimes that Mladic, as commander of the Bosnian Serb army, committed during the 1992-95 war that accompanied the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

TIMELINE: Ratko Mladic

The prosecution has acknowledged it failed to hand over full evidence to the defense as required by the court rules. The defense had requested a six-month delay.

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War crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, Bosnia's military leader, begins


LONDON -- The war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader accused in the killings of Muslim civilians during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, opened Wednesday in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Mladic faces 11 counts of genocide, murder, persecution, terrorism and hostage-taking, including the 1995 slayings of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. He denies all of the accusations.

Onlookers at the opening of the trial said Mladic, wearing a dark gray suit, applauded and gave the thumbs up sign as judges entered the courtroom. Wearing earphones, he listened attentively as presiding Judge Alphons Orie read out the charges.

PHOTOS: War crimes suspect Ratko Mladic

The massacre in Srebrenica came after Bosnian Serb forces entered the town, separated the Muslim men and boys from the rest of the population and took them away. The victims' bodies were later found shot and buried in mass graves.

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