Category Archives: fair trial

When is a "Fair Trial" really a "Fair Trial" ?

Commenting on a recent decision by PTC I at the ICC, William Schabas invites comments on the powers of the Chamber in relation to media statements by members of the OTP. In a nuthsell:

The Chamber chastised Beatrice le Frapper du Hellen, who is a senior official in the Office of the Prosecutor, for remarks that she made in an interview with the lubangatrial.org blog.
The Chamber referred to the fact that much of the Lubanga trial has not been open to the public.Accordingly, the public needs to be able to trust the published statements of those involved in the case, as reflecting, in a suitably balanced way, the evidence that has been heard and the decisions that have been made. It is important that in media statements there is a clear and accurate description as to whether issues that are reported have been decided or are still unresolved. Most importantly, and as a matter of professional ethics a party to proceedings is expected not to misrepresent the evidence, to misdescribe the functions of the parties or the Chamber, or to suggest or imply without proper foundation that anyone in the case, including the accused, has misbehaved.
The Chamber said that Beatrice le Frapper du Hellen had not abided by these principles.’in a manner that is prejudicial to the ongoing proceedings (in the sense that they tend to prejudice the public’s understanding of the trial), which tends to bring the Court into disrepute’. It said it would take no further action than to express ‘the strongest disapproval of the content of this interview’ but warned that ‘if objectionable public statements of this kind are repeated the Chamber will not hesitate to take appropriate action against the party responsible’.

And the problem as identified by Professor Schabas is as follows:

This issue is not expressly regulated by the Rome Statute or the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, and we may well ask on what the Trial Chamber might base its authority to ‘take appropriate action’ in the case of ‘objectionable public statements’. This is part of a larger issue that is looming with respect to the implied or inherent powers of the judges at the Court. In last week’s decision on the stay in Lubanga, the Trial Chamber seemed to think it had the power to order the Prosecutor to do certain things, such as reveal names of ‘intermediaries’. But does it really have such a power? I think that its authority to stay proceedings in the event of a flagrant denial of the right to a fair trial cannot be questioned, and to that extent the decision certainly has a legal basis. But that is because the Chamber controls the trial itself. But can it make orders, and sanction people, for activity outside of the courtroom? Where does this power come from? And if it exists, where does it end? Should I, as an ICC-obsessed blogger, start to worry that I might too be subject to ‘appropriate action’ if I make an ‘objectionable public statement’? I am inclined to think that it could stay the proceedings if a third party – such as myself – made an ‘objectionable public statement’ that drastically compromised the fairness of the trial itself, but that it can do no more than that.

On principle, I don’t find it shocking that within its powers to ensure that fair trial requirements are met, a Chamber could exercise control over the conduct of the parties, in, and out of court. However, the key issue here, before dealing with the exact scope of that control, is what do we mean by “fair trial”? In my opinion, any conduct should affect “fair trial” in a strict procedural interpretation. For example, if the OTP was paying defense witnesses not to testify, or using intermediaries that provide false evidence.
This being said, in this decision, I believe they have much too broad an approach to the notion of “fair trial”. Fair trial is to be evaluated within the proceedings, not outside. This is not a trial by jury, where the the members of the jury might be influenced by unbalanced press reports. The Judges at the ICC are professionals that in theory should not be affected by what a party might say in the press. The “public’s understanding of the trial” is not a component of “fair trial”. Indeed, whether the general public gets a correct picture of the proceedings (whatever that means… given that perceptions of a trial will always vary depending on the viewer’s original bias) is none of the judges’ business, even if from a broader perspective, one can only wish that fair reports of the trial be available to the public.

With this in mind, I don’t see anything that affects the fair trial of Lubanga in the interview given. Of course the OTP is going to say that its witnesses are reliable, if not it wouldn’t have chosen them in the first place. For similar reasons, it is not surprising that the OTP will express trust towards its intermediaries. It is the opposite that would be astonishing. And there’s nothing shocking in the OTP expressing its belief that Lubanga is guilty, if not they wouldn’t have initiated the case in the first place. Moreover, nothing in those statements undermine the power of the Chamber to effectively determine whether the the witnesses are reliable, the intermediaries trustworthy and Lubanga innocent or guilty. Each one is within his institutional role.
This doesn’t mean that one cannot regret the rhetorical shortcuts adopted by OTP members, most notably Mr. Ocampo (recall when he compared Bashir reelection to Hitler’s election…). These statements are certainly careless, inappropriate and possibly give a warped image of the ICC, but they are not strictly speaking fair trial issues. If made in Court, these statements could be questioned by the bench, based on basic principles of civility, rather than fair trial requirements. This is what happened in Sierra Leone where David Crane was chastised for referring to “Dante’s inferno” and the “hounds of hell” in one of his opening statements.
As for third parties, given my strict approach to fair trial, I do not believe that the critical blog musings of William Schabas or myself could constitute a violation of fair trial requirements and therefore taken into account for a stay of proceedings. If not, all academic or NGO activity on an ongoing case should come to a stop until the verdict… More generally, given the global media exposure of these trials, having such a broad approach to fair trial as seems to be adopted by the Trial Chamber, would mean that no defendant in an international criminal court could be said to be able to get a fair trial because they are nearly always portrayed as guilty in the press, in clear violation of the presumption of innocence…

In relation to the exact powers of the Chamber if there is a violation of fair trial requirements, I don’t think there is a general rule. It depends on the nature of the violation. For example, in the case of the intermediaries, I believe there is indeed a case to be made that the Chamber has power to order the OTP to provide the names, given its general powers in insuring disclosure of relevant materials for the adequate preparation of the defense case. For others conducts not covered by explicit powers of the Chambers, I think that the only power would indeed be a stay of proceedings until the conduct stops. Disciplinary measures could only be taken by the Chamber in the specific case of the offences against the administration of justice listed in Article 70 of the Statute. In other cases, another body, such as the Presidency or the ASP, would be competent to deal with orders and sanctions. As for statements, given my strict approach to fair trial, I think they would rarely constitute a violation of that right in the first place, but if they did, a stay of proceedings would equally be the only available tool for the Chamber.

Guest Post: in Favour of Trials in Absentia in International Tribunals

I have long had conversations with people about the issue of trials in absentia and have generally encountered scepticism. This question arose again recently (if indirectly) in the Karadzic decision to appoint standby counsel for the defendant should he decide to continue to “obstruct the proceedings” and prompts me to share some views on the matter.

I would like to point out from the start that I’m not defending that trials in abstentia are a perfect solution or even generally preferable to having trials in the presence of the accused. That would be preposterous. Of course the rights of the defence will be better protected (at least in theory) with the accused present. What I’m arguing is that the practice should not be excluded ab initio as a procedural tool in some situations. Most international institutions have excluded it and I think that’s a mistake.

for one, I have alway been unconvinced by the Human Rights arguments for their total rejection. For Human Rights lawyers, the practice is considered contrary to fundamental human rights. I don’t think so. None of the international Human Rights documents explicitely prevent this practice, to the best of my knoweldge. The European Court of Human Rights has in fact said that “Proceedings held in an accused’s absence are not in principle incompatible with the Convention, but imposed some strict conditions; such as the obligation to inform the accused, the right to appeal and be represented by counsel or the right to fresh assessement of the charges. Other international institutions have considered this issue and, although they show caution about the practice, they don’t clearly ban it.
In fact, I think this is another case where the human rights hegemonic discourse is trying to wrap in universality what is a question of legal culture. Common law jurisdictions will generally be more unlikely to suppport this practice, given the importance of the adversarial procedure. On the contrary, the civil law inquisitorial system, where the judge has considerably more power in exercising control over the proceedings, makes the practice less objectionable.

Despite this, most international tribunals don’t provide for trials in absentia. There is only a possibility of removing a defendant from the proceedings if there is too much disruption or if he has waived his right to be present. There are however two interesting exceptions to this trend. First of all, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is the first international tribunal to explicitely allow trials in absentia. This is of course due to the influence of lebanese civil law on the drafting of the Statute and indicates that claims suggesting its total ban are not entirely justified. The second exception, which is not really one, but does relate to the issue, is the possibility in the Rome statute for the confirmation of charges hearings to be held in the absence of the accused, “when the person has: (a) Waived his or her right to be present; or (b) Fled or cannot be found and all reasonable steps have been taken to secure his or her appearance before the Court and to inform the person of the charges and that a hearing to confirm those charges will be held” (Article 61(2)). This allows the proceedings to continue despite the continued flight of the accused and is a symbolic step in holding “someone” accountable, and, from a political perspective, to put pressure on states to arrest the person under indictment.

Which brings us to our final considerations. Once established that trials in absentia are not in fact contrary to international law, under certain procedural conditions, why argue in their favour from a policy point of view? Those who are opposed to them usually put forward the argument that it will decredibilize the international tribunal by giving an impression of unfairness and bias agains the accused. That is certainly true in theory. It is considerably more satisfying for the image of justice in the eyes of the victims and the world community to actually see the defendant in the dock.
However, it is not a totally satisfying argument.Indeed, for one, even when the Defendant is present, the extreme politisation of these international trials anyway creates a manichean debate with supporters and detractors of international tribunals not budging from their position, whatever the reality. The practice itself of the tribunals, as illustrated by the recent Karadzic fiasco, shows that the perception of bias will exist irrespective of the presence of the accused.

Finally, I believe that there comes a tipping point where the interests of justice and efficiency outweigh the desired situation of having the defendant present. Indeed, once everything has been done to secure the presence of the accused and sufficient time given for his arrest, does the institution really lose more of its credibility by just waiting and showing the world how powerless it is, or by starting the trial anyway, with the required guidelines being satisfied? Given the extremely symbolic nature of international prosecutions, I’m not sure it would be more detrimental to the reputation of the ICC, for example, to start the trial of the remaining LRA leaders (provided the complementarity principle has been correctly applied), rather than have to announce one day that they’ve in fact all be killed by government forces (or, more likely, that they killed each other…) and that there will never be a trial.

There comes a moment where some process is probably preferable to no process at all. I don’t provide here an answer to when exactly that might happen, but the option should at least be on the table.

PS: You might be wondering who the “guest”, in the “guest post” is… in fact, there isn’t any guest, I just thought it looked very professional, like all the other blogs who get some prestigious academic or practictionner to comment on various issues… that might happen in the future (please contact me should you wish to contribute), but given today’s topic, I find it quite fitting to have a guest post in abstentia

More drama at the ICTY: bring on the popcorn for the Karadzic trial!

In the latest episode of the trial, the ICTY Trial Chamber just decided to appoint counsel to Karadzic following a first week of trial where he chose not to attend the proceedings on account of not having had enough time to prepare… and to postpone the commencement of trial until march. Moreover:

In the present circumstances, considering the fundamental nature of the right to selfrepresentation, which cannot be diminished lightly, and in accordance with the principle of proportionality, the Trial Chamber finds it necessary to instruct the Registrar to appoint counsel, who will begin immediately to prepare him or herself to represent the interests of the Accused when the trial resumes, if that should be required. Notwithstanding the appointment of counsel for this specific purpose, the Accused will continue to represent himself, including by dealing with the day-to-day matters that arise, such as the filing of motions and responses to motions filed by the Prosecution, and further preparing himself for the trial.

the defendant will therefore continue to defend himself (even at the recommencement of trial), the counsel only coming in if there is further obstruction…

We won’t go into the legal technicalities of the issues, dealt with elsewhere. Just a few comments.
If I’m undestanding this correctly, their refusal to allocate more time to the defendant led him to refusing to attend his trial, therefore crossing the judges who, to punish him, give me an extra four months for his appointed counsel to prepare for trial, while still allowing Karadzic to continue representing himself for the time-being, thus somewhat giving him what he asked for in the first place… makes sense.
Moreover, this does not really solve the issue of his presence at trial. The drafters of the ICTY Statute decided not to have trials in abstentia. One can argue the pros and cons of that (I would actually be in favour of having those… blame my French legal training… more on this some other time…). But that’s the situation right now. Given that, contrary to the ICTR, the ICTY did not adopt a rule allowing it to proceed in the absence of the accused, I don’t really see on what basis they would continue the trial even with an appointed counsel. The decision seems to suggest that the defendant might forfeit his right to be present by refusing to be present. This is the reasoning behind in abstentia trials and cannot be sustained here (argument in absurdum here, but if this is the case, let’s apply it to Mladic and start his trial tomorrow). Karadzic did not say “go ahead guys, i can’t be bothered attending”. He is making a procedural statement (if a somewhat overdramatic one) on the fair conduct of proceedings. That is not the same as forfeiting his right to attend.
More generally, whatever the position one adopts on this issue, the chamber has put itself between a PR rock and a communications hard place. What kind of mixed message is it sending out, by trying to be tough, and then by threatening the defendant with what he asked for? On the other hand, this is a semantic way of sorts to save face. They couldn’t really say “ok, you win this time, but be careful, we’re watching you”, which is in effect what they have done.

And now, bow your heads and let’s have one minute silence for the completion strategy…