Trump lawyer to contest ICC efforts to open Afghan war crimes probe

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers will speak to the International Criminal Court on Wednesday to block efforts by the chief prosecutor to open a war crimes investigation that would scrutinize the actions of American forces overseas.

ICC judges in April rejected the request of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to examine atrocities alleged to have been committed in the conflict between 2003 and 2004, including by U.S. troops, Afghan forces and the Taliban.

Bensouda will reassert her case to open a formal inquiry during three days of hearings before a panel of appeals judges in The Hague.

Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow, who was allowed to file a “friend of the court” brief as an independent expert, said in a statement ahead of the session that he intends to defend the interests of members of the U.S. military “who sacrifice everything to defend us.”

“Our troops face an insidious new threat, as the International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor is seeking jurisdiction to prosecute our soldiers on war crimes charges after they’ve risked their lives fighting the war on terror,” he said.

Sekulow has been given a 10-minute slot to clarify in court written arguments which the judges already received. The U.S. government has not asked to present its views separately.

Trump has denounced the ICC, the world’s only permanent war crimes court, for its “broad, unaccountable, prosecutorial powers”. Washington revoked travel visas for ICC personnel in response to its work on Afghanistan.

The appeal of the April ruling is supported by human rights groups and legal experts who criticized the judges’ finding that an investigation was not in the “interest of justice” because Afghanistan and the United States were unlikely to cooperate.

Several of those groups, as well as the Afghan government and victims, are also scheduled to speak to the ICC panel.

Prosecutors have cited preliminary evidence suggesting that international forces in Afghanistan, including employees of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, mentally and physically abused detainees, which could constitute a war crime.

The ICC, which opened in 2002, has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity if they have been committed by nationals of a signatory state or if they took place on the territory of one of its 123 members, who include Afghanistan.

The ICC is a court of last resort for the most serious crimes in conflict, stepping in only when a country is found to be unable or unwilling to investigate itself.

The ICC has struggled to be successful without the support of superpowers the United States, Russia and China, which can veto referrals to the court by the U.N. Security Council.

Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall