LONDON: Karim Khan, newly elected chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), is a veteran of high-stakes global legal proceedings who has built a fearsome reputation but also courted controversy.

During a decades-spanning career involving some of the biggest war crimes prosecutions and other cases, the British lawyer has argued in all the major international courts and conducted high-profile probes.

The 50-year-old has worked on both sides of the legal divide, serving as an adviser to prosecutors at the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, before taking on more contentious defence roles.

He represented Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto after the ICC brought a crimes against humanity case against him, and was lawyer for late Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam.

Khan also served former Liberian president Charles Taylor during the initial stages of his trial for war crimes.

More recently, he headed the UN special probe into the crimes of the militant Islamic State group and called for trials like those at Nuremberg of Nazi leaders.

Following Friday’s election involving the ICC’s 131 member states, Khan will take up his new role as only the third prosecutor at The Hague-based court in June.

Carsten Stahn, international criminal law professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who interviewed Khan in 2015 for his course students, said he was a “top choice”.

He described him as “one of the most experienced and successful lawyers in the field, combining grit and vision”.

“His strategic approach, his experience as courtroom lawyer and his keen eye on evidence will strengthen the quality of investigations and prosecutions, which are critical for the court’s success in the next decade,” Stahn said.

Lauded as a “frighteningly clever lawyer and a masterful advocate” by Britain’s The Legal 500 research firm, Khan was initially omitted from the ICC’s shortlist for the job released last year.

He was reportedly later added at the insistence of the Kenyan government.

An ICC committee appraising the final five candidates said in a November report that Khan had set out “a clear vision” of the changes needed at the court.

It called him “a charismatic and articulate communicator who is well aware of his achievements”.

Although the committee noted a write-in campaign by civil society organisations had promoted his candidacy, Khan’s previous defence work has also attracted criticism.

Several Kenyan civic groups are said to have questioned his conduct while representing Ruto, whose ICC prosecution over 2007 post-election violence in Kenya was eventually dropped in 2016.

The case proved highly controversial there, in particular after the murder of a witness described as crucial for the politician’s defence.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2021

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