No boundaries in threats to International Criminal Court

Letter from The Hague: Predicament of human rights activist Nada Kiswanson is ominous

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta. Charges against him of crimes against humanity were dropped at the end of 2014. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta. Charges against him of crimes against humanity were dropped at the end of 2014. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

 

Cases before the International Criminal Court invariably have a lot at stake. They’re about the personal freedom of the accused, of course. But they’re often also about the accountability of leaders, fitness to govern, even the fate of nations. That’s why they can get very, very dirty.

Allegations of threats and intimidation against ICC witnesses and activists are nothing new. Actual investigations by the court are carried out by the prosecutor’s office. But the preliminary spadework depends heavily on human rights organisations and volunteers – and it’s almost always dangerous.

For instance, when charges of crimes against humanity against Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were dropped at the end of 2014, ICC judges made clear that threats to witnesses had contributed to the ignominious collapse of the landmark case. Fear, not justice, it seems, had won the day.

If that was bad – and critics say the Kenyatta case set a new gold standard in obstructing the work of the court – then the predicament of Nada Kiswanson, a hitherto little-known legal researcher with the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, is arguably every bit as ominous.

Dual citizenship

Kiswanson (31), a law graduate of Leiden University, has dual Jordanian and Swedish citizenship and lives in The Hague with her Dutch husband and two-year-old daughter.

As part of her work with Al-Haq, she was responsible for drawing up and handing its detailed portfolio of evidence to ICC prosecutors involved in the preliminary inquiry into the 2014 Gaza war in which some 2,000 people were killed, including 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians.

Since last February, says Kiswanson, she has been at the receiving end of a stream of death threats in the form of emails, messages sent to family members, and even notes attached to bouquets of flowers delivered to her home.

Her claims are being investigated by Dutch police, who are taking them seriously enough to confirm that they’ve put in place unspecified measures to protect her round the clock.

They say that while ICC cases are, of their nature, always difficult, this is the first time that anyone involved in the work of the court, either directly or indirectly, has been threatened on its doorstep – in other words, in the Netherlands. The details of how Kiswanson has been hounded are extraordinary, not least because of the information her assailants have been able to gather about her, because of their total anonymity, and because they have left no discernible electronic or other traces.

Having spoken to the police, for example, she agreed to purchase an anonymous pre-paid mobile phone – only to receive a threatening call on it the very next day.

In one call to her private home landline, a man who identified himself as “Abu Rami” warned her: “Honey, you are in grave danger. You have to stop what you are doing.”

The police advised her to leave home temporarily and she reluctantly decided to spend time out of the country in the hope that the harassment would simply end. While visiting her family in Jordan, however, she received another threatening call on a pre-paid mobile number belonging to a Jordanian relative.

About that time too, a family member in Sweden was called at home and told that Kiswanson was going to be “eliminated”.

Email hacked

At one point, Amnesty International was forced to close its office in The Hague temporarily to review security when it transpired that an employee’s email had been hacked and used to send Kiswanson a death threat.

“My channels of communication have been totally compromised,” she says. And while she does not believe she will be killed, she admits she is concerned that either she herself or one of her loved ones could be “harmed”.

As to who is behind the campaign, her first thought, Kiswanson says, has to be Israel – although the Israeli foreign ministry has responded to her allegations by dismissing them as “absurd”.

One way or another, for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, the harassment is worryingly in line with a global trend towards an increase in attacks on “human rights defenders”, says coalition convenor Bill Pace.

He sees that trend as likely to intensify as the ICC – now 14 years old – becomes involved in ever more difficult and contentious cases.

“The fact is that threats against the ICC are threats against all international law and justice. To that extent, violent threats against ICC advocates have to be treated as hate crimes. That is what they are.”

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