Human-rights groups scored a victory yesterday in their fight to pursue suspected war criminals as soon as they leave the safety of their own countries. The groups' threats to take legal actions forced a key aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to hurriedly leave Vienna just two weeks after he arrived seeking medical treatment.
Prague, 19 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- One of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's top lieutenants, Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is back in Baghdad today after unexpectedly cutting short a controversial trip to Vienna to seek medical treatment.
Al-Douri's departure from Vienna came just days after human-rights advocates began legal action against him, threatening to turn his case into a replica of that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, detained in London since last year.
Human-rights groups were outraged when al-Douri -- who serves as deputy secretary-general of Saddam's ruling party and vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council -- arrived in Vienna two weeks ago to enroll in an Austrian clinic.
Rights groups and several governments, including the United States, have long accused al-Douri of taking key roles in the mass murder of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988 and later brutally crushing a Kurd uprising in 1991 following the Gulf War. He has also been implicated in the torture and murder of Saddam's political opponents.
Al-Douri's arrival in Vienna immediately set off a storm of controversy, which quickly saw human-rights activists in Austria demanding to know why their government had admitted him despite the fact that other European countries have previously refused him a visa.
A leader of Austria's Green Party, Vienna city councilman Peter Pilz, filed a criminal complaint against al-Douri on Monday demanding his arrest. Pilz told reporters that as a signatory to international covenants against torture and for the defense of human rights, the Austrian government had a moral obligation to take al-Douri into custody.
The official reply of the Austrian government only increased the controversy. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Vienna had issued al-Douri a visa on what it called "humanitarian grounds." It also said that al-Douri enjoyed immunity from any arrest proceedings because he is a member of the Iraqi state leadership.
The outcry against al-Douri and the Austrian government's position quickly turned international as major human-rights groups in other European countries and the United States joined the fray.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch -- which tracks a number of suspected torturers -- yesterday called Austria's decision "callous" and "a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of Kurdish victims of Iraq's policy of genocide."
Amnesty International asked Austria to investigate the torture allegations against al-Douri but stopped short of calling for his arrest, saying they did not have the body of evidence needed for such an appeal.
But another group, the London-based Indict, said it was collecting just such evidence against al-Douri. The head of Indict, British parliamentarian Ann Clwyd, spoke about the group's activities with a correspondent for RFE/RL's Iraqi service in London yesterday:
"Indict has been collecting evidence against this particular man and has also been taking legal advice as to how best to go about getting him indicted. So, Indict has been very busy since we first heard that he was in Austria. ...To his innocent victims, both outside Iraq and inside Iraq, he is a party to genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity."
Indict was formed in 1996 to gather evidence to bring Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other leading figures of the Iraqi regime before an international tribunal to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is currently no war crimes tribunal for Iraq as there is for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.
The fast international mobilization against al-Douri comes as prosecutors, politicians and human-rights advocates worldwide have been emboldened by Pinochet's arrest last year to pursue suspected war criminals whenever they travel outside the safety of their home countries.
Activist legal scholars argue that all nations have the right to prosecute crimes -- wherever they are committed -- under the international 1984 Torture Convention and the 1948 Genocide Convention. But until the Pinochet case, few governments sought to apply the conventions to suspected war criminals traveling in their countries unless they had first been formally indicted by an international tribunal.
Pinochet's case established a new precedent when a judge in Spain charged the former Chilean leader with genocide and torture conducted inside Chile. British authorities, responding to the Spanish judge's extradition request, arrested Pinochet in October while he was in London for back surgery. After nearly a year of legal wrangling, formal extradition proceedings against Pinochet are now due to start in a London court on September 27.
Al-Douri, who has not been indicted by a tribunal, was still far from being arrested as he abruptly left Vienna yesterday. But the thought that he could face the difficulties now embroiling Pinochet could not have been far from his mind as he decided to leave.
And that can only count as a victory for the human rights groups who pursued him so avidly. They may be disappointed that the Iraqi official has escaped back to Baghdad. But they can at least be satisfied that they have clearly limited his ability to travel to Europe in the future.