International war crimes judges ruled Thursday that a probe into abuses in Afghanistan must go ahead, including looking into possible atrocities committed by U.S. forces, as they overturned a previous ruling.
“The prosecutor is authorised to commence an investigation into alleged crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan since May 1, 2003,” International Criminal Court judge Piotr Hofmanski said.
The International Criminal Court last year rejected a demand by its chief prosecutor to look into crimes committed in the war-torn nation – an investigation also bitterly opposed by Washington.
In 2006, the ICC’s prosecutors opened a preliminary probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the central Asian nation since 2003.
In 2017, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked judges to allow a full-blown probe, not only into Taliban and Afghan government personnel but also international forces, U.S. troops and members of the Central Intelligence Agency.
But pre-trial judges said it “would not serve the interests of justice” and that the court should focus on cases with a better chance of success.
While U.S. officials hailed the decision, human rights groups said it was a blow to thousands of the victims, and ICC prosecutors appealed.
Bensouda’s move also unleashed a backlash from Washington, which in April last year revoked the Gambian-born chief prosecutor’s visa as part of broader restrictions on ICC staff probing American or allied personnel.
Former national security advisor John Bolton warned in 2018 that the U.S. would arrest ICC judges if the court pursued an Afghan probe.
The U.S. has never joined the ICC and does not recognize its authority over American citizens, saying it poses a threat to national sovereignty.
Washington argues that it has its own procedures in place to deal with U.S. troops who engage in misconduct.
Afghanistan also opposes the inquiry, saying the country itself had “responsibility to bring justice for our nation and for our people.”
The ICC’s ruling comes days after Taliban militants killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in a string of overnight attacks, throwing the country’s nascent peace process into grave doubt.
Under the terms of a recent U.S.-Taliban agreement, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.
A U.S.-led force invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., targeting al-Qaeda in the sanctuaries provided by the Taliban government.
Fighting has continued ever since – last year more than 3,400 civilians were killed and almost 7,000 injured, according to data provided by U.N. agencies.
This story was updated at 1013 GMT on March 5 to reflect the ruling.
With reporting from AFP