Unsurprising and unsatisfactory: ICC Pre-Trial Chamber orders joinder of Yekatom and Ngaissona cases

Yesterday, Pre-Trial Chamber II at the International Criminal Court ordered the joinder of the cases against Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona. There was little doubt that this would happen for any follower of the proceedings, but this does not make the outcome satisfying both in terms of the process followed and the legal framework applied.

1) The process

In relation to the process, the circumstances in which the decision was rendered are more than problematic for two reasons in particular:

  • On 4 February 2019, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona’s Counsel filed a request to withdraw, indicating his incapacity to treat the case “diligently”. On 7 February 2019, the Pre-Trial Chamber decided that the withdrawal would only take effect on 12 February 2019, after the filing of the Defense submissions on the joinder. So basically, the Pre-Trial Chamber forced a lawyer who admitted himself his incapacity to deal with the case to file observations on a fundamental issues that could affect the entire conduct of the proceedings for years to come, instead of postponing the process to allow the new Counsel to properly assess the situation and file observations. This is incomprehensible. It will be interesting to see if the new Counsel for Ngaissona will make a point of providing observations on the issue for the record or not.
  • According to the filing by Alfred Yekatom’s Counsel, they have not even received  an unredacted version of the arrest warrant against Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, the OTP requests for arrest warrants against both suspects and the evidence supporting those requests, let alone received a document containing the charges. How could the Defense teams provide any kind of meaningful observations in those conditions?

If this is the attitude that this PTC is going to adopt throughout the process in relation to the exercise by the Defence of their right to participate actively in the proceedings, it is quite worrying.

In that respect, I noticed that throughout the decision, the PTC refers to the suspects solely by their last name (“Yekatom” and “Ngaissona”), not “Mr”, not even their first name. I obviously have not read every filing at the ICC, but I would say that this is unusual practice. This might seem like a detail, but I find that this shows a notable lack of respect for the suspects.

2) The Law.

The reason that the outcome of the decision is unsurprising is that the Pre-Trial Chamber essentially follows the Katanga and Chui precedent. However, this does not make it any more legally convincing today than in 2008. Indeed, the Katanga and Chui precedent is far from convincing from a legal point of view and should not have been followed. It would be too long to explain all the reasons why in detail, I will propose just a few quick thoughts.

But before that, a small caveat: my point here is not to express a normative opinion on the theoretical desirability for Judges to be allowed to join cases during the confirmation of charges process. There are probably, as always, good reasons for and against such a possibility.

My point is more basic: the Rome Statute does not legally allow for such a joinder and the Katanga and Chui and now Yetakom and Ngaissona precedents are unconvincing in that respect. why?

To start with the most obvious point: the PTC in Katanga (as the current PTC) never explained how provisions on joinder explicitly contained in Article 64 relating to the powers of the TRIAL chamber can somehow magically be considered to be applicable by the Pre-Trial Chamber. There isn’t any more clarity in the 8-page (of which only two are operative!) Appeals Judgment on joinder in the Katanga and Chui case. The reasoning of these chambers is a little hard to follow, but there seems to be two main arguments made:

a) The fact that the provisions on joinder are included in the part of the Statute that regulates the “Trial” (rather than the confirmation phase) does not ” does not preclude joint proceedings at the Pre-Trial stage, but rather supports the general rule that there is a presumption of joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly”. This is rather strange reasoning. first of all, how can the explicit inclusion of a provision in the “Trial” Part of the Statute (just as Rule 136 is explicitly in the “Trial Procedure” chapter of the RPE) logically be proof that it can be applied in other phases? it does not make sense. Second of all, the reasoning is very obviously circular: there is no “general rule that there is a presumption of joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly” in the Statute or the RPE, this is invented by the Judges based on their own interpretation of the first sentence of Rule 136, despite the fact that Rule 136 also only seems to apply to the “trial procedure” (see below on this). They cannot then pretend that they didn’t just do that and say: “look, we’re right, Rule 136 supports the general rule”. Essentially, what the Judges are saying is: “Rule 136 supports the general rule we just invented based on our reading of Rule 136, so this means we can interpret Rule 136 as applying in pre-trial, which in turn supports the general rule we just invented based on our interpretation of Rule 136…etc.”. This is obviously not satisfactory.

b) All these Judges pretended to apply the Vienna Convention in order to “interpret” the Rome Statute and claimed that their interpretation of the Statute allowed them to advance the “object and purpose” of the Statute. But this is in my view a dishonest application of the “object and purpose” idea in order to ignore what the treaty actually says. Judges can claim that they were just “interpreting” the Statute, but they are essentially rewriting the Statute, which is obviously beyond their mandate. Whatever one thinks of the Rome Statute and its inadequacies (which are numerous and I never shy away from pointing them out), this does not mean that the Judges get to ignore what they don’t like.

Moving on to my second, related, point: how can there be a joinder of “charges” (as per the explicit language of Article 64(5) of the Rome Statute), when the charges are not even known because the Prosecutor has not even filed a Document containing the Charges? The language of the Statute is clear: you need to know what the charges are before you join them. One could even argue that joinder of “charges” can only happen in relation to “charges” actually confirmed by a PTC. This interpretation would be consistent with the fact that power to join charges is only granted to the Trial Chamber, i.e, after the confirmation of charges phase.

And finally a last point: the whole reasoning of the PTC in Katanga and Chui followed here by PTC II in fact revolves around their interpretation of the first sentence of Rule 136 which provides that “Persons accused jointly shall be tried together”, and which led the Judges to consider that this ” establishes a presumption for joint proceedings for persons prosecuted jointly”. There are a number of problems with this “presumption of joint proceedings”: 1) as noted before, Rule 136 applies to the trial phase, not the confirmation of charges phase. Therefore, the term “tried” should be interpreted restrictively to apply to the actual “trial”, not generally to “proceedings” 2) along the same lines, “accused jointly” does not necessarily mean “accused jointly by the Prosecutor“, but whose charges have be joined according to Article 64(5). This interpretation finds support in the French version of the Rules which provides that “Les accusés dont les charges ont été jointes sont jugés ensemble”. This clearly indicates that there should first be a joinder of charges, before a presumption of a joint trial can be considered.

Of course, you could say that I am being a little unfair with the PTC. It’s not this PTC’s fault that there is precedent for what they decided and it should not be controversial for them to follow this precedent. However, with the Rome Statute having celebrated its 20-year birthday last year, it is time for the ICC to grow in maturity and move away from the practices that tarnished its image as a credible legal institution during its youth, rather than reproduce the same mistakes. Otherwise, there is the risk that the institution will move straight from growing pains to midlife crisis…

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