ICTY orders retrial of acquitted defendants in unconvincing Judgment

Yesterday, the ICTY Appeals Chamber rendered its Judgment in the Stanisic and Simatovic case. Both defendants had been acquitted of all charges in the Trial Judgment (part 1 and part 2). They were acquitted under JCE liability because their mens rea to contribute to The JCE was not established beyond reasonable doubt. They were also acquitted for aiding and abetting liability because their acts were not specifically directed at the commission of crimes. This is explained by the fact that the Trial judgment came out in the period of time between the Perisic appeal Judgment which got the ball roling on the need for the “specific direction” requirement in aiding and abetting liability and the Sainovic Appeal Judgment which promptly batted the requirement out of the park.

The Appeals Judgment quashes both acquittals and orders a retrial. While I can imagine that attention will naturally focus on the aiding and abetting part of the Judgment, given all the heated debates on the “specific direction” requirement (see Marko Milanovic here and Kevin Jon Heller here), the Judgment actually delivers some other interesting gems.

  • The flawed reasoning on JCE

The reason for quashing the JCE acquittal is somewhat puzzling to me. Indeed, the Appeals Chamber doesn’t seem to have any quarrel with the factual assessment done by the Trial Chamber in determining the absence of the required mens rea of the accused. For the AC, the problem lies with the fact that the TC should not have entered findings on the mens rea of the accused on the basis of the « alleged JCE » as argued by the Prosecutor, but first entered findings on the actual elements of the JCE. Here is the relevant passage (par. 82):

The Trial Chamber was therefore required to examine whether Stanisic’s and Simatovic’s shared intent to further that common criminal purpose could be inferred from their knowledge combined with their acts as well as from their words and interactions with other individuals, after having established the existence and scope of the common criminal purpose shared by a plurality of persons. In other words, without making findings on the existence and scope of the common criminal purpose shared by a plurality of persons, the Trial Chamber could not assess Stanisic’s and Simatovic’s words in the context of “that purpose and whether their acts contributed to that purpose and, consequently, it could not properly adjudicate whether Stanisic’s and Simatovic’s mens rea for JCE liability could be inferred from the circumstances.

There is both a legal and a logical problem with this reasoning.

Legally speaking, there is not one footnote in support of this affirmation. This beats even Perisic and its reliance on a single sentence from the Tadic Judgment to justify the specific direction requirement. In fact, in his dissenting opinion, Judge Afande provides several examples of TCs proceeding in this manner.

Logically speaking, I have a problem with the underlying idea. Indeed, what the AC is essentially saying is that a TC must make findings about all elements on a mode of liability before pronouncing itself on one of them. I’m not sure this makes sense. Imagine the following scenario. A man is accused of selling a car to a group of people allegedly sharing a criminal intent to rob a bank. However, his lawyer proves that this man had no knowledge of or intent to contribute to any criminal activity when he sold the car. This should be case closed, right? who cares whether the group of people exist, or if they actually did share a criminal purpose. Not according to the AC which would still require that the judge establish whether there is a group of people and whether that group of people is acting with a criminal purpose. That is not really efficient practice in my view. If we push the logic, and take an even simpler example, it means that if a man is accused of killing his wife in Paris with a gun and he has an alibi that puts him in New York at the time of the alleged crime, a Judge would still have to determine that the wife has indeed been killed by gunshot, even though there is no chance that the accused was involved in the crime, alleged or actual.

More importantly perhaps, there is an underlying implicit view of the role of the Judge in the criminal proceedings. What the majority of the AC are saying is that the Judge is expected to determine the existence of a common criminal purpose (including its scope and its members) based on the evidence adduced by the Prosecutor. This finds support in the OTP appeal arguments (par. 62) : «In the view of the Prosecution, without making findings on the existence of a common criminal purpose, its scope, members who shared it, and the conduct which contributed to it, and without a reasoned opinion on these essential elements, the Trial Chamber could not correctly decide on Stanisic’s and Simatovic’ s shared intent to further the common criminal purpose».

However, technically, there isn’t « a » common criminal purpose, there is « the » common criminal purpose alleged by the Prosecutor. He has the burden of proof, and he constructs the indictment. The only role of the Judge is to determined whether the allegations are proven beyond reasonable doubt, not whether the evidence brought by the prosecutor proves something, whatever it is. From this point of view, the TC was not incorrect in taking as a starting point the common criminal purpose that the Prosecutor alleged, with an alleged scope and composition. In other words, the Judges already knew the scope and composition of the common criminal purpose : the one put forward by the Prosecutor. That is the one that was relevant for the charges brought against the Accused. Maybe the evidence shows several other common criminal purposes, with different scopes and compositions, but that is in my view not in the least bit relevant if the Prosecutor did not plead them. I insist : he has the burden of proof and the judges are not there to subsitute their own legal understanding of the facts and evidence to fit their own personal common criminal purpose.

  • The order for retrial

Concerning the order of a retrial, it is quite a massive decision to decide to start from scratch such a long process. It also conveniently gives work to the MICT for a few years.

Essentially, the AC considers that it would be too difficult and too much work to go through the whole case record to make the necessary missing findings that it considered were not made by the TC. In that respect, I note an interesting argument raised by Judge Agius in his separate and partly dissenting opinion.  He considers that the Majority should have done a review of the evidence in order to assess whether the error of law that they identified in fact had an impact on the outcome of the trial judgment in order to invalidate it (par. 10): « I respectfully believe that it is most unfortunate that the Majority neither attempts to conduct a review, nor offers any explanation as to how the Trial Chamber’s error invalidated its findings with respect to Stanisic’s and Simatovic’s mens rea ». This is for me a convincing argument. The Appeals process is not complete until it is determined that, but for the error of law, the Judgment would have been different. However, rather surprisingly, Judge Agius then goes on the actually follow the Majority in ordering the retrial for the following reasons : «At this stage of the Tribunal’s mandate, and with one member of this Bench only mandated to serve until the end of the year, I am fully aware that there is no time for the Appeals Chamber to conduct the exercise of review itself even if I were to convince my Colleagues that such an exercise was a preferable and appropriate exercise of the Appeals Chamber’s powers. I also find myself in the absolute minority on this issue- It is for these reasons, after having given due consideration to matters such as fairness to the accused, the interest of justice, the circumstances of the case in hand, and considerations of public interest, that I join the Majority in ordering a retrial in this case».

This reasoning is particularly unconvincing. Once it is established that doing the review was a legal obligation on the part of the AC in order to invalidate the decision, then the failure to do so is illegal (and not « unfortunate » as noted by Judge Agius). End of discussion. If Judge Agius truly believes that, then the fact that the mandate of one judge is ending is irrelevant. That is a human ressources argument that has no place in a legal argument. Even less convincing is that fact that he is in the minority. Following that logic, there would never be any dissenting opinions!

  • The new death of “specific direction”?

Finally, in relation to «specific direction», there isn’t in fact much to say. Given the composition of the bench, there was little doubt that there would be majority to follow Sainovic rather than Perisic (see Marko and Kevin on the process that led to the composition of this bench). And unsurprisingly, Judge Agius dissented. I won’t go into the debate on the requirement here, but two points can be made in relation to the Judgment.

First of all, it is interesting to note the very pragmatic approach of Judge Afande in his dissent. He essentially does not take sides on the debate on whether « specific direction » is a legal requirement of aiding and abetting liability (whether as part of the actus reus or the mens rea). Rather, he puts forward a pragmatic and practical argument, similar to the one found in Perisic : there are factual situations where, in the absence of a discussion of « specific direction », it is impossible for a Judge to determine that the only reasonable inference of the facts is that the accused had the requisite mens rea or actus reus to aid and abet the commission of the crimes charges. It is a case-specific evaluation that depends on the facts. While this reasoning does not « solve » the legal question that plagued the Perisic and Sainovic Judgments, it does explain why I believe that the discussion on «specific direction» is not as dead as some would like it to be. As ICL has a tendency to cast the net of responsibility in always a wider range, there will always factual scenarios which create unease with finding criminal responsibility among some Judges and these Judges will always need to resort to arguments (call it «specific direction» or something else) to keep ICL in check.

Second of all, in the particular circumstances of this case one can note that the AC casually discards the lex mitior argument presented by Simatovic who considered that if there was going to be a retrial on aiding and abetting liability, the most favorable law should apply, i.e the version with «specific direction». The Appeals Chamber answers that because «specific direction» was never a part of aiding and abetting liability, there was no more favorable law to apply. On a basic level I understand the position of the AC, once you accept the legal analysis on specific direction. However, the problem I have is on the finding of the error of law in the first place. When the TC issued its Judgment, it was applying the law as it was bound to apply it, that is the one stated by Appeals Chamber of ICTY, the highest Chamber of the tribunal. For all intents and purposes, «specific direction» was part of aiding and abetting liability in the period of time between Perisic and Sainovic so there was no error of law at the time of the Judgment. In the same way that the OTP could not obtain the reconsideration of the Perisic Judgment after Sainovic came out, I think that Stanisic and Simatovic should have remained acquitted on that count.

In conclusion, this AC Judgment is not extraordinarily convincing, especially on JCE. I hope the international community of commentators and general media reacts as strongly as it did on the Perisic Judgment. Sadly, I doubt it, because the bad guys are back in jail, so everything is back to normal…

4 responses to “ICTY orders retrial of acquitted defendants in unconvincing Judgment

  1. Thanks Dov – fantastic analysis. I fully agree. One further question I had: why did the AC give the impression that the case could be remanded to the TC (when it held that two of the three TC Judges had left the Tribunal in the meantime)? Arent the transitional arrnagements very clear that a retrial can only be conducted by the MICT?

  2. Thanks Dov. Excellent analysis. One question: it seems quite clear that the MICT has jurisdiction over the retrial. Can you explain why the AC then suggested that the case could be remanded back to the TC but seemingly only didnt do so because two of the TC’s judges are no longer with the ICTY?

  3. Great analysis Dov. One question though – clearly the MICT is competent for the retrial. Do you have any explanation why the AC (a) never mentions that the retrial will be conducted by the MICT, and (b) even suggests a possibility that it be remanded to the S&S ICTY TC (but only doesnt do so because two of its Judges have left)? The latter point seems squarely contrary to the transitional arrangements….

  4. Pingback: Judicial Rejection of “Specific Direction” is Widespread | JAMES G. STEWART

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