Ezzat Ibrahim Douri, a key aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, hurriedly left Austria today to avoid possible prosecution for his alleged role in the murder of Iraqi Kurds. But human rights advocates were quickly on his trail, firing off a request for his arrest to his new host, King Abdullah of Jordan.
Since the arrest of former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet in London last year, a growing number of prosecutors, politicians and human rights advocates have been pursuing suspected war criminals around the world.
In France, two refugees persuaded authorities in the city of Montpellier to arrest a Mauritanian colonel, Ely Ould Dah, on July 2 for allegedly torturing suspected coup plotters in his country in the early 1990s.
A team of Portuguese lawyers is seeking government support to try Indonesia's former ruler, Suharto, for the murder of thousands of civilians in East Timor. Suharto, who has fallen ill, reportedly canceled a trip to Germany for treatment because of the case.
"The world has become a smaller place for people who commit torture and other international crimes," said Reed Brody, director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch, which is tracking a number of suspected torturers.
The pursuit of Ibrahim was initiated Monday by a Vienna city councilman, Peter Pilz. Citing a 1984 international convention against torture, Pilz filed a criminal complaint against Ibrahim with the Austrian state prosecutor's office for his alleged role in the mass murder of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988 and the brutal crushing of a Kurdish uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Austria's Foreign Ministry said Ibrahim received a visa on "humanitarian grounds" to enter Austria for medical treatment on Aug. 6. It added that "as a member of the Iraqi state leadership," he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Ibrahim serves as deputy secretary-general of Saddam's ruling party and vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council.
The decision to admit Ibrahim drew criticism from the U.S. State Department, and the decision to allow him to leave was attacked by human rights advocates. "Austria's callous decision is a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of Kurdish victims of Iraq's policy of genocide," said Brody.
"Our view is that no country ought to facilitate the travel of Ibrahim for any reason whatsoever. We have made our views on this issue clear to the government of Austria," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.
Rubin noted, however, that there is no international war crimes tribunal for Iraq--as there is for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. "We think this is a really bad guy, but that doesn't mean that there's legal grounds to hold him," he said.
Ibrahim flew to Amman aboard a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight that was delayed by a bomb threat. On arrival in Jordan, he was whisked out of a VIP lounge by Iraqi Embassy officials and an elite Jordanian force, the Associated Press reported. Since U.N. sanctions bar flights into Baghdad, flying to Jordan and traveling overland is probably the fastest way for Ibrahim to get home.
Some legal scholars say that all nations have the right, and even the obligation, to prosecute crimes under the 1984 Torture Convention and the 1948 Genocide Convention. However, few countries had sought to apply the conventions to traveling ex-dictators or junta members until the families of Spanish victims of the Chilean military regime filed a criminal complaint against Pinochet in July 1996.
A Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, charged Pinochet with genocide and torture. British authorities, responding to an extradition request, arrested him in October 1998 when he was in London for back surgery.
Critics say that the conventions were not designed to give courts carte blanche to detain criminal suspects from foreign countries.
"Both conventions oblige states to enact laws to criminalize these kinds of acts," said Alfred P. Rubin, a legal scholar at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. They don't, he added, empower local prosecutors to arrest anyone they please.