Switzerland’s courts have seen recent successes involving cases based on universal jurisdiction, helped in part by current and former SRT grantee partners, including TRIAL International, Civitas Maxima and International Federation of Human Rights, (FIDH). Universal jurisdiction is the legal principle that allows national courts to prosecute individuals for serious crimes under international law – such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture – regardless of their nationality or where the crimes were committed. Below are examples of universal jurisdiction being used in Swiss courts for crimes that took place in the following countries:
Two former SRT grantee partners, FIDH and TRIAL International, and a Belarusian NGO Viasna, were involved in bringing a case to trial of Yuri Harauski, a former member of the Belarusian special security forces overseen by President Lukashenko. He will stand trial over the enforced disappearances of three political opponents in the 1990’s.
Harauski, who had since claimed asylum in Switzerland, has been vocal about his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Lukashenko’s opponents in 1999. In an interview with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2019, Harauski said those who disappeared were abducted by the Special Rapid Response Unit, including himself. He alleged they were under the leadership of Dmitri Pavlichenko, who had shot the victims. Harauski has said he knows where the three men are buried. He has signalled his willingness to be tried for his involvement but has expressed his wish to be tried in Switzerland and not in Belarus.
It is the first time that a member of Lukashenko’s special forces will be tried over enforced disappearance. Ilya Nuzov, Director of the Eastern Europe desk at FIDH, noted that; “This could be a watershed moment for international justice for the Belarusian regime’s crimes… Harauski’s trial might not only secure a conviction for one of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes; it could also establish facts which could later be used to go after those who had ordered the commission of the crime, including Lukashenko himself.”
Khaled Nezzar, former Algerian Minister of Defence will stand trial on charges of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity between 1992 and 1994, during the 10-year Algerian civil war.
The conflict between the Algerian government and various armed Islamist groups resulted in almost 200,000 people missing or dead and left countless victims of torture and sexual violence. However, since an amnesty law in Algeria provides impunity for most atrocities perpetrated during the conflict, the upcoming trial marks a historic step in the fight for justice for the crimes committed during this time.
The trial comes after TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint in 2011, leading to 12 years of formal proceedings and investigation. A legal advisor at TRIAL International Benoit Meystre noted that due to increasing age and vulnerability of witnesses, “no other prosecution concerning the Black Decade will take place anywhere in the world. This trial is therefore the only – but also the very last – opportunity to deliver justice for victims of the Algerian civil war.”
Switzerland also issued an international arrest warrant for the extradition of Syria’s former Vice President Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the current Syrian president and nicknamed in the media as ‘Butcher of Hama’. He is wanted in connection with the proceedings brought by TRIAL International in 2013, for his alleged role in the war crimes committed in the city of Hama in February 1982. The ‘Hama Massacre’ saw the Syrian Defense Forces, commanded by Mr. al-Assad, committing executions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture. According to various sources, as many as 40,000 people were killed in the span of only three weeks.
And in June, a Swiss court found former Liberian commander Alieu Kosiah guilty of war crimes, becoming the first Liberian to be convicted over the country’s civil war. He was sentenced to 20 years for crimes including murder and rape. He was detained in 2014, after Civitas Maxima, presented the Swiss attorney general with evidence of his involvement in war crimes.
Finally, 2024 will see the trial of former Gambian Minister of Interior Ousman Sonko for crimes against humanity allegedly committed under the rule of the former dictator Yahya Jammeh between 2000 – 2016. This comes after a complaint filed by TRIAL International in 2017. A statement from the Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court read that he is “accused, in his various capacities and positions, of having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalized attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime.”
One journalist credits the willingness of Switzerland to pursue such cases, “to its current attorney general, Stefan Blättler, who took office in 2021 pledging to apply the law to both national and international cases as long as evidence was solid.”
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