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Condemned by Law: Assassination of Political Dissidents Abroad

Central to the exercise of universal jurisdiction is the requirement that the alleged violators actually committed an international crime.185 International crimes involve the commission of certain grave offenses in violation of treaty or customary law.186 Any international crime committed within the territory of one member state victimizes not only those directly affected by the deprivation of fundamental rights, but the international community as a whole.187 As such, all states are obligated to exercise universal jurisdiction in order to prosecute or extradite alleged offenders. This concept of the mandatory exercise of jurisdiction has been codified with respect to war crimes under the Geneva Conventions,188 torture under the Convention Against Torture189 and genocide under the Genocide Convention.190 The codification, in turn, reflects customary law encouraging all states to prosecute or extradite international criminals pursuant to the principles of universal jurisdiction.191

Eight countries in Europe have passed domestic legislation allowing for the exercise of universal jurisdiction and the prosecution of international crimes. These countries are France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.192 Universal jurisdiction in the domestic courts of these countries may solely be exercised in the prosecution of international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.193 However, each state has made its own decision as to which of these crimes may be prosecuted in their domestic courts.194 For example, France’s legislation only allows the exercise of universal jurisdiction for torture in connection with the Convention against Torture.195 Similarly, Denmark and Spain only apply universal jurisdiction pursuant to their treaty obligations under the Convention against Torture and the Geneva and Genocide conventions.196 Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands all allow the exercise of universal jurisdiction in connection with crimes against humanity.197

To the extent that the Islamic Republic’s state-sponsored assassinations of political dissidents abroad constitute international crimes, any member of the international community may initiate judicial proceedings against persons allegedly responsible for the commission of these crimes. As will be explained, evidence suggests that the regime’s actions may be characterized as murder or persecution within the context of a crime against humanity.198 Some of these assassinations may also constitute war crimes. Victims of Iran’s campaign of assassinations may, therefore, petition governments in Europe to initiate proceedings against high ranking Iranian officials implicated in these murders based on the commission of an international crime.

Yet significant legal barriers may delay or frustrate the successful implementation of criminal trials against Islamic Republic officials and their agents. For example, all eight jurisdictions above foreclose the option of prosecuting current state officials pursuant to the principles of immunity recognized by international law.199 Many of the highest ranking members of the Islamic Republic implicated in the assassinations of political dissidents, such as Khamenei and Rafsanjani, continue to serve the regime in an official capacity and are thus immune from prosecution. Moreover, most of the jurisdictions require the suspect’s voluntary physical presence either before the initiation of an investigation or the issuance of an arrest warrant.200 Finally, some jurisdictions have instituted statutes of limitations on prosecutions of international crimes.201 Despite these limitations, victims and human rights advocates must put pressure on all governments, including those in Europe, to exercise their obligations to prosecute all international criminals to the fullest extent of the law.

[185]See infra § 5.4 for a discussion of international crimes, including crimes against humanity.
[186]See id.
[187]See generally Adil Ahmad Haque, Group Violence and Group Vengeance: Toward a Retributivist Theory of International Criminal Law, 9 BUFF. CRIM. L. REV. 273 (2005).
[188]Protocol I arts. 11, 85, 86, 88, supra note 38.
[189]Convention Against Torture arts. 2, 4, 5, 6, supra note 165.
[190]Genocide Convention art. 6, supra note 165.
[191]Amnesty Int’l, Universal Jurisdiction in Europe: The State of the Art, at 1-4 (2006), available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/ij0606/10.htm (last visited Oct. 31, 2008) [hereinafter State of the Art].
[192]See id. at 37-100. Six of these eight jurisdictions have actually passed implementing legislation pursuant to their treaty obligations or customary international law. See id. This legislation effectively supplements their criminal codes with international charges, such as crime against humanity or genocide. See id. The remaining jurisdictions, Norway and Germany, have no implementing legislation and may prosecute international crimes based solely on domestic criminal charges. See id. at 63-70, 80-85. See also infra § 5.4 (providing a discussion of international criminal law, crimes against humanity and the exercise of universal jurisdiction pursuant to customary law (as opposed to treaty law)).
[193]Id. at 3.
[194]Id. at 5.
[195]Id. at 55.
[196]Id. at 24.
[197]Id. at 40-74; see also infra § 5.4.
[198]See infra § 5.4.
[199]See Arrest Warrant Case para. 75, supra note 178; State of the Art, supra note 191, at 39 (discussing the Belgium
Supreme Court’s abandoning of a universal jurisdiction case against Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister of Israel, based
on the immunity principle; see also Pieter H.F. Bekker, World Court Orders Belgium to Cancel Arrest Warrant, Issued
Against the Congolese Foreign Minister,
ASIL INSIGHTS, February 2002, available at
www.asil.org/insights/insigh82.htm (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).

[200]See State of the Art, supra note 191, at 28-30; see also Mohamed El Zeidy, Universal Jurisdiction in Abstenia: Is it
a Legally Valid Option for Repressing Heinous Crimes, 4 OXFORD COMP. L.F. (2003).

[201]See, e.g., DUTCH MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Introduction to the International Crimes Act, available at www.minbuza.nl/en/themes,international-legal-order/international-criminal-court/backgroundinformation/Introduction-to-the-International-Crimes-Act.html (last visited Oct. 31, 2008). Further, the United Kingdom only allows prosecution for crimes committed after 2001. See Olympia Bekou and Sangeeta Shah, Realizing the Potential of the International Criminal Court: The African Experience, 6 HUMAN RIGHTS L. REV. 499 (2006).

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Political Killings, Assassinations, Political Freedom