Bringing foreign war crimes before Dutch courts

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“People with blood on their hands shouldn’t feel they’re safe here,” says Hester van Bruggen, who brings international human rights cases before Dutch courts. She is just back from Rwanda, where she’s been hearing witnesses.

By Thijs Bouwknegt

Van Bruggen is currently preparing a case against a Dutch-Rwandan national, Yvonne Basebya, on charges of genocide, murder and rape. She took the case in 2006 and since then has been flying back and forth to Rwanda to hear witnesses. Last summer, she secured the conviction of another Rwandan, Joseph Mpambara, who was sentenced to life in prison by a court in The Hague.

In addition to the two cases relating to the Rwanda genocide, Van Bruggen and her legal team are also working on a case involving a number of Sri Lankans accused of financing terrorism from the Netherlands.

The first international case she took on dates back to 2003. It centred on Sebastian Nzapali, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was arrested in the Netherlands on suspicion of torture. “The case had to be opened but there was nothing in place here. It was a test case,” Van Bruggen explains.

Eight years on, she heads the International Crimes Team at the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office. The team comprises just one other public prosecutor and two assistants. “But the team is rock solid,” she emphasises.

The team investigates genocides and other large-scale crimes in far-flung places such as Liberia, Bosnia and Iraq as well as Rwanda and Sri Lanka. “They’re situations that get to you,” Van Bruggen admits.

An anthropologist helps the team understand the cultural context of the countries where it investigates cases. You need to prepare each case from scratch, Van Bruggen says in her Rotterdam office. “Working in Afghanistan is completely different from working in Rwanda. And the preliminary investigation into large-scale human rights violations presents many pitfalls: language, culture, security, dealing with witnesses, etc.”

Working in distant countries, Van Bruggen explains, means you need to reinvent the wheel each time—and stumble many times before figuring out the dos and don'ts. And because the crimes generally took place long ago, she and her team often must rely on witnesses, something, she warns, that is not without risks: “Victims are often deeply traumatised. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful but one must treat their depositions with considerable caution. Occasionally, we’re even forced to reject a good witness because it would be irresponsible to use their testimony in court.”

Each country, moreover, requires its own approach. “In Rwanda it’s relatively easy to work. You don’t have to see three ministers, drink eight cups of tea and shake six hands to be allowed to visit a police station. In other countries you do have go through all that.”

How does she find the witnesses? “You need to go out there. Sometimes that requires protection.” Even so, she also tries to find documents. Sometimes there’s a shed, a hangar or a container with documents in a foreign language, which she then needs to have translated.

In other cases, she obtains information from tribunals, NGOs or from forensic digs. She never puts all her eggs in one basket. “You try to build your case as broadly and critically as possible.” 

Mounting pressure
With more and more international tribunals closing, national judiciaries around the world are facing a growing number of international cases. This, however, has one major disadvantage, because Dutch judges, unlike those of international tribunals, are not allowed to visit foreign crime scenes.

Van Bruggen deplores this limitation: “It is essential for judges to visit the sites for themselves. Take Rwanda: if you haven’t been on hill A you can’t judge what you can see on hill B. And that is critical in establishing the credibility of a witness.”


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