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Justice sought for Darfur war crimes

American lawyers meet with their Sudanese counterparts to help prepare them for upcoming prosecutions.

June 12, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Sohair Abdella met her client in a hospital room. The 19-year-old woman was cradling an infant in arms laced with deep cuts. Her face was covered with bruises. She had been kidnapped from her village in Darfur and taken to a Sudanese army camp, she told Abdella, where she was subjected to "continuous rape" for seven days.

A militiaman next took her to his home, where he kept her as a virtual slave. Finally, she escaped with her new baby and made her way to the hospital where Abdella, a Sudanese human rights lawyer, found her. A friendly prosecutor agreed to file charges.

"And then," Abdella said, "the disasters started to happen all around."

Abdella was advised to drop the case. The leader of the girl's tribe came under pressure from the government to forget the matter. When the judge refused the government's order to refer the case to another court, he was replaced. On the day of the court hearing, Abdella arrived and found the session had not only started, but ended.

"The judge made reconciliation between the girl and the accused, and he made them a marriage contract in court," Abdella said. "So the case was dismissed."

Across the conference room in the posh London hotel where Abdella was recounting her case, there was an audible gasp -- this from a roomful of American judges, law professors and seasoned former federal prosecutors, including Terree Bowers, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, who thought they had seen it all. But this was Darfur.

All last week, two dozen lawyers from the U.S. and Sudan huddled here in elegant Mayfair, joining forces for an American Bar Assn. program that aimed to train the African lawyers to gather witnesses and evidence for upcoming war crimes prosecutions.

Last month, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants against a leader of the janjaweed militia and a Sudanese government minister in the first attempt to hold perpetrators responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the sprawling region of western Sudan, where an estimated 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million others have been displaced in battles between the government-backed militias and rebels.

The case is only the second to be filed by the 5-year-old court, created by international convention to build a permanent institution along the lines of the ad hoc tribunals that have prosecuted modern war crimes in places such as the former Yugoslav federation, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

The international law courts are coming under increasing fire as slow, expensive dispensers of Western-style justice. Some critics say their very existence can prolong wars by impeding the deployment of peacekeeping troops or negotiated settlements in cases where government officials fear being hauled off to jail when the peace arrives.

Here, though, there was little patience for any keep-it-out-of-court argument.

"This argument is baseless, and it's wrong," said Salih Mahmoud Osman, a human rights lawyer in Khartoum, the capital, who led the delegation of 13 attorneys from Sudan. "The issue of justice and accountability is very much needed there. Everybody knows that our judicial system is incompetent."

On the day the prosecutor in The Hague announced the opening of a Darfur investigation, Osman said, "there was a decline in the commission of crimes for more than three or five months -- because the perpetrators were panicked that they could be held accountable. But by the time they felt there was nobody any longer talking about justice, then the situation erupted again. Justice can play the role of a deterrence mechanism."

The ABA attorneys and judges came with lectures on recognizing and documenting war crimes and genocide; tips on how to prepare witness statements; and coaching on what constitutes proof and how to affix legal responsibility for crimes. The lawyers from Darfur brought the raw materials: rape, torture, razing of villages and years of butting heads with a judicial system that rarely punishes the crimes.

"It's very important in presenting the court with evidence that the evidence be as specific as possible, that you tell the judges about specific, individual cases. And that you do so in a manner that is persuasive and powerful," Brad Brian, a Los Angeles attorney and ex-federal prosecutor who organized the seminar, told the Sudanese lawyers.

But what if the prosecutor won't file your case? What can be done about the law in Sudan that says a man cannot be convicted of rape unless there are four witnesses? What if, as happened to Osman, your client is sentenced to death and you get thrown in jail for seven months for "providing free legal aid to persons accused of committing offenses against the state?"

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