ICC to Open Probe Into Possible Crimes Against Humanity in Libya

Prosecutor's decision marks an unprecedentedly swift reaction to the violent crackdown on anti-government protests by Libyan leader Gadhafi and his supporters.

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague announced Wednesday that it had decided to open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Libya.

Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's decision to open a probe marks an unprecedentedly swift reaction to the violent crackdown on anti-government protests by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and his supporters.

Protesters in Libya on February 23, 2011Credit: Reuters

"Following a preliminary examination of available information, the prosecutor has reached the conclusion that an investigation is warranted," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Prosecutors often take months and sometimes years to decide whether to open an investigation into possible war crimes.

Moreno-Ocampo will present Thursday an overview of alleged crimes committed in Libya since February 15 and of "preliminary information as to the entities and persons who could be prosecuted and put them on notice to avoid future crimes".

Once he has gathered sufficient evidence, the next step would be for the prosecutor to present his case to ICC judges, who will need to decide whether or not to issue arrest warrants.

The ICC is the world's first permanent war crimes court with power to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It has opened investigations in five African states.

The United Nations Security Council on Saturday imposed sanctions on Gadhafi and his familu and referred the crackdown on demonstrators to the ICC.

The ICC said Monday that it had been in contact with Libyan army officers in its first attempt to gather information on civilian deaths, and pledged no impunity for anyone found to have committed crimes against humanity.

Moreno-Ocampo said then that he hoped to decide within days whether to open a formal investigation that could lead to indictments against those responsible, and had formed a team to begin gathering information.

When the office of the prosecutor receives a Security Council referral, the statute requires that prosecutors carry out a preliminary examination to see whether there is reasonable basis to proceed with a full investigation.

Moreno Ocampo said his investigators had been in touch with Libyan officials and army officers to understand the command structure in Libya, which could help determine who might be subject to prosecution. He did not elaborate on who his office had contacted or how.

"Information suggests that forces loyal to Gadhafi are attacking civilians in Libya. This could constitute crimes against humanity and must stop," the Argentinian prosecutor said. "There will be no impunity for leaders involved in commission of crimes," he said.

It was only the second time the UN body had asked the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal to intercede in a conflict, following its 2005 request to probe mass killings in Darfur in western Sudan. In that case it took two months for the prosecutor to open an investigation.

That investigation led to an indictment for genocide of President Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese leader has rejected the charges and refused to surrender to the court.

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