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Ramping up fight, Trump brandishes sanctions over ICC war crimes probe

2 min 30Approximate reading time

President Donald Trump on Thursday authorized sanctions against any official at the International Criminal Court who investigates US troops, ramping up pressure to stop its case into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

In an executive order, Trump said the United States would block US property and assets of anyone from The Hague-based tribunal involved in probing or prosecuting US troops.

"We cannot -- we will not -- stand by as our people are threatened by a kangaroo court," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement to reporters.

"I have a message to many close allies around the world -- your people could be next, especially those from NATO countries who fought terrorism in Afghanistan right alongside of us."

The court responded by stating that its president O-Gon Kwon "rejects measures taken against ICC," calling them "unprecedented" and saying they "undermine our common endeavor to fight impunity and to ensure accountability for mass atrocities."

US Attorney General Bill Barr alleged, without giving detail, that Russia and other adversaries of the United States have been "manipulating" the court.

Using Trump's "America First" language, Barr said the administration was trying to bring accountability to a global body.

"This institution has become, in practice, little more than a political tool employed by unaccountable international elites," he said.

- 'Contempt' for rule of law -

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell voiced "serious concern" and said the court "must be respected and supported by all nations."

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he was "very disturbed" by the US move, and said The Netherlands supported the court on its soil.

"The ICC is crucial in the fight against impunity and upholding international rule of law," Blok wrote on Twitter.

Human Rights Watch said Trump's order "demonstrates contempt for the global rule of law."

"This assault on the ICC is an effort to block victims of serious crimes whether in Afghanistan, Israel or Palestine from seeing justice," said the group's Washington director, Andrea Prasow.

But the move was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump's closest allies, who has been angered by the ICC's moves -- strongly opposed by Washington -- to probe alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

In a reference to Israeli settlements, Netanyahu accused the court of fabricating accusations that Jews living in their historical homeland constitutes a war crime.

"This is ridiculous. Shame on them," Netanyahu told reporters.

Trump has been tearing down global institutions he sees as hindering his administration's interests, recently ordering a pullout from the World Health Organization over its coronavirus response.

- Long-running US anger -

The Trump administration has been livid over the International Criminal Court's investigation into atrocities in Afghanistan, America's longest-running war.

The administration last year revoked the US visa of the court's chief prosecutor, Gambian-born Fatou Bensouda, to demand that she end the Afghanistan probe.

But judges in March said the investigation could go ahead, overturning an initial rejection of Bensouda's request.

Under Trump's order on Thursday, visa restrictions will be expanded to any court official involved in investigations into US forces.

The United States argues that it has its own procedures in place to investigate accusations against troops.

"We are committed to uncovering, and if possible holding people accountable, for their wrongdoing -- any wrongdoing," Barr said.

Trump, however, used his executive powers last year to clear three military members over war crimes, including in Afghanistan.

Among them was Eddie Gallagher, who had been convicted by a military tribunal of stabbing to death with a hunting knife a prisoner of war from the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Gallagher had become a cause celebre among US conservatives, although Trump's action troubled some in the US military.

Founded in 2002, the International Criminal Court immediately ran into opposition from Washington, where the then administration of George W. Bush encouraged countries to shun it.

Former president Barack Obama took a more cooperative approach with the court, but the United States remained outside of it.

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