News 14 Jun 13

Hague Judge’s Criticism of Tribunal Sparks Controversy

A Hague Tribunal judge’s email suggesting recent high-profile acquittals by the court could have been due to political pressure has caused controversy after it was leaked to the media.


Frederik Harhoff, a Danish judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has caused controversy after a private email he wrote criticising the court’s recent acquittals of Serbian and Croatian wartime commanders was published by a newspaper in Denmark.

In the email, Harhoff wrote that he had heard that the Tribunal’s president, Theodor Meron, an American, allegedly put pressure on other judges to approve the acquittals in recent months of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, Yugoslav general Momcilo Perisic and Serbian security officials Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.

Harhoff also accused the Tribunal of changing its policy on convictions.

“Right up until autumn 2012, it has been a more or less set practice at the court that military commanders were held responsible for war crimes that their subordinates committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia from 1992-95,” Harhoff argued.

But after that, he said, the leading Croatian and Serbian officials were acquitted partly on the grounds that it could not be proved that they actually ordered their subordinates to commit war crimes.

“Now apparently the commanders must have had a direct intention to commit crimes – and not just knowledge or suspicion that the crimes were or would be committed,” he said.

The result of this, he argued, was that the Tribunal has taken “a significant step back from the lesson that commanding military leaders have to take responsibility for their subordinates’ crimes”.

He alleged that the changes could have come as a result of “pressure from ‘the military establishments’ in certain dominant countries”, such as the US and Israel, which do not want to see precedents established that could be used to convict their citizens in the future.

“The latest judgments [at the Tribunal] have brought me before a deep professional and moral dilemma, not previously faced,” Harhoff concluded the letter by saying.

“The worst of it is the suspicion that some of my colleagues have been behind a short-sighted political pressure that completely changes the premises of my work in my service to wisdom and the law,” he wrote.

The New York Times reported that the judge’s criticism raised “serious questions about the credibility of the court”.

The Sense Agency news website meanwhile described it as a “bombshell” for the Hague Tribunal.

Danish newspaper Berlingske has not revealed how it obtained the private letter, dated June 6, which Harhoff originally emailed to friends and associates.

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