The first ICC prosecutor – Luis Moreno-Ocampo (1)

This week the network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) started publishing Court Secrets – a series of articles on the policy and actions by the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The series is based on over 40,000 leaked documents, financial statements, diplomatic cables and correspondence. It reminded me of my own encounter with Luis Moreno-Ocampo when I interviewed and observed him while he was still ICC chief prosecutor.

Excerpt from my book All Rise:

‘With irritation prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo responded to the question. It was still in the early stages of the interview, and his reaction came abruptly and unexpectedly. The question hadn’t been outrageous, I thought. It had seemed a normal thing to ask: what personal characteristics do you need to possess to be a good prosecutor? It was autumn 2011. The Argentine lawyer was into his eighth year leading the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), the organ of the court tasked with investigating international crimes and prosecuting the main perpetrators.

While he slammed with his hand on his desk, he answered my question: ‘It is not about personality. It is about duty. The requirement for the job is to have integrity. And integrity is not just about being honest. It means that if you have the evidence and the law says that you should [prosecute], you do it! Integrity is also ignoring applause or criticism.’

Two years before this interview I had seen the prosecutor live for the first time – although from a distance. He was invited as the special guest for the presentation of a documentary about the work of the ICC in general, and more specifically about Moreno-Ocampo’s OTP, during the Movies that Matter Festival, organised by Amnesty International in The Hague. A film crew had been following the prosecutor for three years. The result, ‘The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court,’ was shown to the public that evening.

The hall of Theater aan het Spui filled up. The guests, half of whom were ICC officials, climbed the stairs to find themselves a seat. After an introduction the lamps dimmed. On the big screen the first images appeared of a documentary about the court and its mediagenic prosecutor. After a full hour the lights flipped on again. A table and two chairs had been placed before the screen for an interview between journalist Linda Polman and the main character of the documentary. The two walked to the stage, where Polman invited Moreno-Ocampo to take a seat. The prosecutor ignored her request. He preferred to stand, made a few steps until he was right in front of the audience, raised his arms and with a big smile encouraged his staff: get up, this movie and screening are in honour of you!

Happily surprised, the court officials got up from their seats as they heard Moreno-Ocampo’s encouragements to applaud. Soon the staff were standing, clapping joyfully for themselves, while the rest of the audience moved uncomfortably in their chairs – looking around in amazement as the screening had turned into an ICC celebration, in which they didn’t participate. In this festive ambiance, Moreno-Ocampo seemed even less inclined to take part in an interview with a critical journalist. Again he refused to sit down next to the small table. Like an Argentinian cowboy he put his foot on the seat of the chair reserved for him, focused on the audience and reacted with repulsion to Polman and her questions. He did not even want to talk much about the Darfur case, in which he had won a major victory a few weeks before. On 4 March 2009 the judges had honoured his request for an arrest warrant against the Sudanese president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur.

Moreno-Ocampo had wanted to prosecute the head of state for genocide as well, but the judges ruled he hadn’t provided enough evidence to support charges for this crime of crimes. The prosecutor appealed that decision. A year later, on 12 July 2010, the pre-trial judges would issue an arrest warrant for genocide charges as well.

Back in the theatre the prosecutor didn’t feel like responding to journalistic questions such as: would the arrest warrants not trigger revenge by the Sudanese regime against the population in Darfur? Moreno-Ocampo was, in fact, looking for a way to cut short the interview. Again he walked to the public, then stood still and asked one of the filmmakers to take his place on the stage.

The painful session came to an end. Later in the foyer a concerned organiser of the Amnesty film festival came up to journalist Polman asking: ‘What went wrong?’ It was anyone’s guess. One ICC official briefly approached Polman and suggested the prosecutor did not like being grilled by female journalists. Further down in the foyer the ICC staff were having a great time amongst themselves. Polman and her problematic interview had ceased to exist.

In the following years I would continue to follow and watch Moreno-Ocampo. When there were important announcements, it was the prosecutor himself who would, with his usual assertiveness, address the media during press conferences. He was the director of the show. Without a trace of doubt he would passionately counter critical questions from journalists, in his ‘Spanglish’ – his English flavoured by a heavy Latino accent. He appeared worldwide on television and thus Moreno-Ocampo became the face of the International Criminal Court. As chief prosecutor he only came to the courtroom for principal hearings, where he would, with great alacrity, present his case against the suspect. But when he was not speaking, he would slump back in his chair and play with an arm of his glasses between his teeth; quasi offhand or sometimes even showing disregard for the opposing party. As if he wanted to demonstrate that the words of the defence did not affect him at all.’

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