Del Ponte promises to hunt Syria war criminals

Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria Carla del Ponte (R) listens to Chair Paulo Pinheiro during a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA: Carla del Ponte, the former United Nations war crimes prosecutor, vowed on Thursday to bring to justice high level Syrian political or military figures who may have ordered or committed war crimes.

Del Ponte, who has joined a team of U.N. human rights investigators on Syria, said she would help compile evidence and testimonies which could be used in an international tribunal or Syrian national court.

Led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, the team has been documenting atrocities committed by Syrian government forces and armed rebels in the 19-month-old conflict.

"My main task will be to continue the inquiry in the direction of determining the high-ranking political and military authorities responsible for these crimes," she told reporters.

Del Ponte later said in a Swiss television interview it was up to key U.N. institutions and major powers to decide what to do with the findings of the team whose next report is due in January.

" We don't know yet whether it will be an international court or a national court or what. Our task is to carry out this investigation to gather evidence and it will be up to the U.N. Human Rights Council or Security Council to decide," she said.

In their last report in August, the investigators said Syrian government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appeared to be a state-directed policy.

The investigators have also drawn up a secret list of Syrian individuals and units suspected of committing crimes which they say could pave the way for future criminal prosecution.

The list is locked in a safe in the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who has repeatedly called for the Security Council to refer the conflict in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"We are not a tribunal, we are not a criminal prosecution body. What we do is to build evidence for future judicial initiatives in terms of making accountable those responsible for these violations," Pinheiro said.

Del Ponte's eight years at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were dominated by the pursuit and trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before sentencing.

Asked about parallels between Syria and past investigations, she said: "The similarity is of course we are handling the same crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes for sure."

Previously the Swiss attorney-general and also known for her crusades against the mafia and organised crime, Del Ponte said she was moved by the accounts of atrocities emerging from Syria.

"There are many, many victims. I have learned that there are many children among them. It may be the first time that I am confronted by this," she told Swiss television.

The investigators have sent a letter requesting to meet Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to secure access for the team which has been shut out of the country since being set up a year ago.

They have interviewed more than 1,100 victims, refugees and defectors, but have not been able to meet wounded soldiers or families of state forces killed by rebels.

"We intend to go there without conditions to meet President Assad to discuss access of our commission to Syria," said Pinheiro, who went to Damascus in June in a personal capacity.

Del Ponte praised the panel's work in documenting violations across Syria as providing a "big picture of the crime base" needed to pursue responsibility up the chain of command.





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