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U.S. strips visa from war crimes prosecutor

The United States made good on its threat to block the International Criminal Court from investigating Americans, revoking a visa for its chief prosecutor.

WASHINGTON (AN) — U.S. President Donald Trump's administration made good on its threat to block the International Criminal Court from investigating Americans, revoking a U.S. travel visa for the war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor.

The U.S. State Department said ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda cannot visit the United States for any reason other than for "official U.N. purposes" because of a need to "protect our people from unjust investigation and prosecution by the international criminal court."

It said visas would be denied to ICC officials who were "directly responsible for any ICC effort to conduct a formal investigation of U.S. or allied personnel without the relevant country’s consent."

Bensouda's office issued a statement confirming the revocation and emphasizing her duties with The Hague, Netherlands-based court. A Gambian lawyer and international maritime law expert, Bensouda has been the ICC's chief prosecutor since June 2012. She previously was ICC deputy prosecutor since 2004, and before joining the court worked as legal adviser and trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

"The office of the prosecutor has an independent and impartial mandate under the Rome Statute of the ICC," her office said. "The prosecutor and her office will continue to undertake that statutory duty with utmost commitment and professionalism, without fear or favor."

The ICC was created in 2002 as a court of “last resort” that would be authorized to step in only after nations had failed to prosecute individuals for the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.

But the United States never ratified the Rome Statute, the international treaty that underpins the authority of the world's first permanent international criminal court. The Philippines withdrew from the court in March, only the second nation to ever do so after Burundi became the first in 2017. Malaysia joined the ICC in March, leaving the court with 123 member nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month the United States will revoke or deny visas to ICC staff that try to bring charges in alleged war crimes and other abuses committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation,” Pompeo said.

Last September, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, harshly condemned the ICC, one of the most-hated international organizations for conservatives. Bolton has campaigned for decades to neutralize the ICC, which he regards as a threat because he believes it might someday prosecute an American citizen.

“We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC,” he said. “We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

In November 2017, Bensouda asked the court to formally open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network militants, and U.S. forces and intelligence in Afghanistan since May 2003.

The case included a look at CIA activities in Afghan detention centers, where U.S. personnel were alleged to have used torture and illegally imprisoned others.

'Highlighting the need for the ICC'

Human rights organizations pounced on the Trump administration's anti-ICC decision.

"The USA government should actively invite the prosecutor to come and meet, not ban her from traveling," said Amnesty International’s Center for International Justice. "Cooperation with the ICC is in the USA's interests — to share relevant information and show there is nothing to hide."

The Elders, a London-based international organization founded by Nelson Mandela, said it was "deeply regrettable" that the State Department revoked the visa.

"There can be no impunity for anyone of any nationality accused of war crimes," it said, adding the Trump administration's decidion "gives succour to states who scorn human rights and justice for all."

Human Rights Watch's Executive Director Kenneth Roth said Trump "may think that revoking the International Criminal Court prosecutor's visa will dissuade her from examining U.S. torture in Afghanistan, but it only underscores his own determination not to prosecute it, highlighting the need for the ICC."

U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters the world body assumes that the prosecutor, "when she needs to come to the United Nations, will be afforded a visa for work done at the United Nations.”

Bensouda was expected to appear before the U.N. Security Council next month to discuss her investigation in Libya, a high priority for her office. The ICC's pre-trial chamber issued arrest warrants in an investigation of war crimes there after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.