'War Crimes' Murmurs

At home, Bush, Warner, Lugar join the department of Rumsfeld defense

WASHINGTON, D.C. While the right-wingers argue among themselves over the future of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld —whether, for example, to be upset because he signs death notices to military families by machine—a German court is in the early stages of hearing a case brought by German and American public-interest groups accusing Rumsfeld of being a war criminal because of his handling of the Abu Ghraib prison.

Rumsfeld got a vote of confidence on Monday from President Bush. On the Sunday talk shows, John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Richard Lugar, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both strongly supported him. "We're at war," said Warner. "We should not at this point in time entertain any idea of changing those responsibilities in the Pentagon." Rumsfeld has run into a certain amount of flak from Republicans in Congress, including John McCain, Maine's Susan Collins, and former majority leader Trent Lott. Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, a decorated vet, said he had "no confidence" in Rumsfeld.

In Germany, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Berlin's Republican Lawyers Association filed their complaint November 30 on behalf of four Iraqis allegedly mistreated by American soldiers. In addition to Rumsfeld, the suit names Presidential Medal of Freedom winner George Tenet (the former CIA director); Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steven Cambone; Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the army's top commander in Iraq during the prisoner-abuse scandal; Brigadier General Janis Karpinski (the commander of the jail guards); and five other military officers who served in Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld addresses Korean soldiers in Irbil, Iraq, on Oct. 10, 2004.  Rumsfeld is in Iraq to show support for the coalition troops and meet with Iraqi officials.
photo: Master Sgt. James M. Bowman, U.S. Air Force/defenselink.mil
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld addresses Korean soldiers in Irbil, Iraq, on Oct. 10, 2004. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to show support for the coalition troops and meet with Iraqi officials.

Officials may tend to take these war-criminal suits a bit more seriously than in the past because of the ongoing efforts to press Chile in prosecuting former dictator Augusto Pinochet. "Many people who may readily accept the indictments of present or former high officials for fraud or embezzlement are apt to balk at such indictments for war crimes, particularly if they are brought in a foreign country," says the German complaint. "But the former Chilean dictator Pinochet would never have been arrested in London in 1998 if human rights organizations and prosecutors had only been driven by precedent and realism."

The Pentagon immediately sought to portray the suit as an attack on American soldiers. "Generally speaking, as is true anywhere, if these kinds of lawsuits take place with American servicemen in the crosshairs, you bet it's something we take seriously," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told Agence France-Presse. "If you get an adventurous prosecutor who might want to seize onto one of these frivolous lawsuits, it could affect the broader relationship. I think that's probably safe to say." There are 70,000 American troops stationed in Germany, many of whom are rotated in and out of Iraq.

The groups that filed the complaint said they chose Germany because of its 2002 Code of Crimes Against International Law, which grants German courts universal jurisdiction in cases involving war crimes or crimes against humanity. It also makes military or civilian commanders who fail to prevent their subordinates from committing such acts liable. Di Rita said he didn't know whether the United States had raised specific concerns directly with the German government. But he said, "I think every government in the world, particularly a NATO ally, understands the potential effect on relations with the United States if these kinds of frivolous lawsuits were ever to see the light of day."

For their part, the complainants quote Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, in his opening speech on November 21, 1945, at the tribunal:

"Let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law, if it is to serve a useful purpose, must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law."

Last year, the U.S. clashed with Belgium over a suit charging Presidential Medal of Freedom winner General Tommy Franks, who led the Iraq invasion. A 1993 Belgian law gave that country's courts the authority to judge people accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide—regardless of where the acts took place or the nationality of the suspects and the victims.

The Belgian suit sent Rumsfeld over the top. He threatened to block funding for a new NATO headquarters and warned that the U.S. might not send officials to Brussels while the law was in place. The Belgians immediately backed off, replacing the tough law with a much milder one, and the country's high court threw out the suits against Franks, former president Dad Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

In the new German suit, the German magazine DW says Rumsfeld told the German government via the U.S. embassy that if the suit goes forward the embassy won't take part in an annual Munich security conference this February.


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