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How NATO states sponsored ICC prosecutor’s Putin arrest warrant

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ICC prosecutor general Karim Khan raised millions from NATO states by crafting an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin while freezing investigations into well-documented US and Israeli war crimes. Along the way, he won powerful friends in Washington, London, Kiev — and Hollywood.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, stood before a podium on March 3, 2023, and issued an unusual qualifier: “Of course the prosecutor of the ICC does not, whatever affection and regard I may have for my dear friends in Ukraine – has no special affinity to any particular country. We’re not a party to any hostilities.”

“We have an affinity to legality,” Khan insisted in British-accented English. “We have an affinity and commitment to the rule of law.”

Khan made his declaration of legal independence while headlining the “United for Justice” conference, an event personally organized in Lviv, Ukraine, by President Volodymyr Zelensky. There, he pressed the flesh with Ukraine’s president and conferred with US Attorney General Merrick Garland, who had stopped in to advance the Biden administration’s effort to haul Russian President Vladimir Putin before an international war crimes tribunal.

It was Khan’s fourth visit to Ukraine since the Russian military invaded the country in February 2022.

On March 17, 2023, Khan introduced a formal ICC warrant for Putin’s arrest, accusing the Russian president of the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children to a “network of camps” throughout Russia. The warrant arrived days before the 20th anniversary of the NATO invasion of Iraq, a crime directed by US and UK officials whom the ICC has refused to prosecute to this day.

As The Grayzone has reported, the ICC’s warrant was inspired by a State Department-funded report that contained no field reporting, no concrete evidence of war crimes, and no proof that Russia was actually targeting Ukrainian youth with a massive deportation campaign. In fact, the investigators acknowledged finding “no documentation of child mistreatment, including sexual or physical violence, among the camps referenced in this report.” What’s more, the inquiry’s lead author told The Grayzone’s Jeremy Loffredo that “a large amount” of the Russian youth camps his team researched were “primarily cultural education – like, I would say, teddy bear.”

Though Khan pledged his absolute independence in his hunt for Putin, he is closely aligned with the same Western governments that are currently engaged in a proxy battle with Russia on the Ukrainian battlefield. Meanwhile, he has stalled the ICC’s case against Israel, frustrating human rights lawyers who represent the victims of grisly violence in the besieged Gaza Strip. Additionally, Khan formally dropped the international court’s case against the US military for its actions in Afghanistan.

Through his focus on Ukraine, Khan has presided over a massive surge in Western financial support for his office, with much of the money earmarked for his investigation into Russian officials. The ICC’s issuance of Putin’s arrest warrant happened to coincide with a major donor’s conference for the court in London, England.

The ICC prosecutor’s political entanglements do not stop there. Celebrity lawyer Amal Clooney has worked as a special advisor to Khan’s office while simultaneously counseling the Ukrainian government on its initiative to target Russian officials with prosecution, either by the ICC or another international body. Clooney has also served as a special liaison to the British Foreign Secretary.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that after two decades of unremitting hostile relations with the ICC, official Washington is suddenly warming up to the court, and is endeared by its top prosecutor.

Karim Khan (left) with US Attorney General Merrick Garland in Lviv, Ukraine on February 28, 2023

ICC’s Khan inspires “sighs of relief in Jerusalem,” support from the US

US President Joe Biden helped set the tone in Washington with a full-throated endorsement of the ICC prosecutor Khan’s warrant against Putin, declaring it “justified.” On the Republican side of the aisle, the US Senate’s most enthusiastic cheerleader of the Ukraine proxy war, Lindsey Graham, was even more fulsome in his support for the court’s campaign, celebrating the ICC’s prosecutor as a modern-day Nazi hunter.

Washington’s sudden embrace of the ICC represented a sudden and clearly opportunistic break from two decades of antagonism.

Almost as soon as US President George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, his administration introduced the Servicemembers Protection Act, a measure that authorized a future US military invasion of the Hague in the event the ICC indicted any US personnel for war crimes. When the bill passed the Senate the following year, not one member of the Republican Party opposed it.

The US intensified its campaign against the ICC in 2019, after then-Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced an investigation into war crimes committed by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally denounced Bensouda, the Senate introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on him to escalate its attacks on the “politicized” ICC. Graham was among the signatories to the resolution. (The Biden administration also opposes the ICC investigation into Israeli war crimes).

When Bensouda declared her intention to investigate both the US and Taliban for crimes against humanity in Afghanistan the following year, Washington placed the prosecutor under sanctions and revoked her US visa.

Since replacing Bensouda in 2021, Khan has worked to soothe the nerves of the US and its most violence-prone allies. The Jerusalem Post reported in June 2022 that “there have been some sighs of relief in Jerusalem,” as Khan had “not issued a single public statement nor taken any single public action regarding Israel-Palestine” in his first year as prosecutor.

“There has been no significant progress or measures taken, the investigation [into Israeli atrocities] is not a priority for the office of the prosecutor, and no cases have been brought yet,” a member of the legal team representing victims of Israeli violence in the occupied Gaza Strip told The Grayzone. “Every time the issue is raised before Khan, he never takes a position, and there’s never been a statement.”

The lawyer noted the irony of Khan’s obsession with the transfer of civilians from Ukraine to Russia, considering he has ignored the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territory now known as “Israel” to occupied territories and refugee camps across the Middle East. “In Palestine civilians have been transferred for decades, it’s the most over documented situation of war crimes in history,” they said. “Palestine should be the final benchmark for the credibility of the court.”

Khan also narrowed the scope of the ICC’s Afghanistan investigation, protecting US forces from prosecution by focusing solely crimes committed by the Taliban. “This decision reinforces the perception that these institutions set up in the West and by the West are just instruments for the West’s political agenda,” Shaharzad Akbar, the former chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, complained to The Intercept

“This was clearly a political decision – there’s really no other way it can be interpreted,” Jennifer Gibson, a US lawyer who heads an investigation into US abuses in Afghanistan, said of Khan’s action. “It gave the US and their allies a get out of jail free card.”

With its two most contentious investigations out of the way, a clearly pliant figure in the prosecutor’s office, and Russian troops inside Ukraine, the previously battered ICC suddenly experienced a deluge of Western financial support.

“In the weeks after 24 February [2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine], the [International Criminal] court has been flooded with cash and secondments,” reported JusticeInfo.net.

Much of the money flowed directly to Khan’s office, with special earmarks for efforts targeting Russian officials. As Maria Elena Vignoli of Human Rights Watch told JusticeInfo.net, “In the messaging around the various pledges that were made, states were not always that careful, and they often made the link between their contribution and Ukraine, thus creating this perception of politicization or selectivity in the court’s work.”

Washington, London pave the path for the ICC’s Khan

It was February 28, 2022 when Khan announced his intention to “proceed with opening an investigation into the Situation in Ukraine, as rapidly as possible.” Russia’s military operation inside Ukraine was only four days old at that point.

Days later, on March 2, 2022, the British Embassy in the Hague delivered Khan a referral co-signed by over 40 US and UK diplomats that urged him to investigate Russia for violations of the Rome Statute of the ICC.

That same day, Sen. Graham introduced a resolution in the US Senate calling for “Vladimir Putin and members of the Russian regime to be held accountable for the numerous acts of war, aggression, and human rights abuses that have been conducted under his watch.” Even as hawks like John Bolton warned that support for the ICC’s warrant could validate future legal actions against the US citizens, the resolution passed unanimously.

Just hours after issuing his resolution condemning alleged violations of international law, Graham took to Twitter to call for Putin’s assassination. “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?” the senator pleaded on March 3, 2022. “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.”

 

On April 3, 2022, Biden injected further momentum into the ICC’s campaign against Russia, branding Putin a “war criminal” and demanding he be hauled before “a war crimes trial.”

To further Biden’s objective, and by extension, that of the ICC, the US Department of State announced in May 2022 the establishment of a Conflict Observatory to gather open source evidence of alleged Russian war crimes and disseminate the findings “so that prosecutors can potentially even build criminal cases based on the material that is published.”

With American political winds at his back, Khan embarked on his first officially-curated tour of Ukraine.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan on a government-guided tour of Kharkiv, Ukraine

Four government-guided junkets to Ukraine

Khan made his inaugural visit to Ukraine on March 16, 2022, arriving first in Poland, where he met with Ukrainian migrants at a refugee reception center. He then crossed the Ukrainian border to confer in Lviv with Irina Venediktova, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, before holding a virtual meeting with Zelensky.

“We conduct our work with independence, impartiality and integrity. I have underlined that I wish to engage with all parties to the conflict,” Khan insisted.

 

His second visit came just weeks later, in April, when Venediktova shepherded him to the town of Bucha, which Russian troops had occupied for weeks before retreating at the start of that month. Ukrainian officials simultaneously led packs of Western journalists to local gravesites, presenting the burial grounds as evidence that Russia had carried out mass-scale executions in the town.

Images of corpses strewn across Bucha prompted Zelensky to accuse the Russian government of “genocide”, while US President Biden demanded that Putin appear before a war crimes tribunal. Biden’s request came despite his own Defense Department concession that it could not “independently and singlehandedly confirm accounts” of execution-style massacres committed by Russian forces in the town.

When Khan made his third visit to Ukraine in July 2022, he went to Kharkiv. Accompanied once again by Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Venediktova, he announced that the ICC planned to establish a field office in Kiev.

By that point, Zelensky’s government had outlawed 13 opposition parties, jailed his main presidential rival, shut down all critical media, banned the Russian patriarchate of the Orthodox Church and was on its way to arresting its top priest. Kiev was also disappearing and torturing political opponents and human rights advocates as part of an assassination campaign targeting Ukrainian officials accused of collaborating with Russia. Neo-Nazi militants had even videotaped themselves executing suspected Russian sympathizers.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military was escalating its attacks on civilian targets throughout the independent Republicans of Donetsk and Lugansk, bombing markets and in one instance, massacring a bus load of commuters with a Tochka-U missile. Ukrainian soldiers were also recorded executing unarmed Russian prisoners or war and shooting them in the knees.

But as Khan was junketed around Ukraine, he remained studiously disinterested in the documented abuses his official hosts were carrying out right under his nose. He had his eyes firmly fixed on Putin – and on the generous Western donations that propelled his mission.

Karim Khan meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his fourth trip to Ukraine this March

Bring Back Our Girls 2.o

This March, Khan made his fourth trip to Ukraine to, in his words, “deepen our engagement with national authorities.” In Lviv, he headlined a conference called “United for Justice.” Personally hosted by Zelensky, the stated purpose of the event was to “hold Russia’s top leadership accountable for the crime of aggression against Ukraine.”

In promotional material, the United For Justice conference focused on a seemingly new and emotionally potent issue: the supposed deportation of Ukrainian children by Russia, and the urgent need to bring them home.

The theme contained clear echoes of the Kony 2012 campaign launched against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who “kidnapped over 30,000 children to strengthen his army,” according to the now-disgraced online hucksters that initiated it. It also recalled the humanitarian interventionist “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag campaign launched by former First Lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities to highlight the abduction of several hundred schoolgirls by the Islamist militia Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

At United for Justice, it seemed NATO officials had landed on a theme guaranteed to pique the outrage of suggestible Western liberals.

Above: From the United For Justice promotional trailer. Below: Hollywood actors at the 2016 Oscars ceremony amplify the Obama administration’s Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

Throughout the United for Justice conference, participants repeatedly leveled the allegation of mass youth deportations against Russia. “Small children are being kidnapped, brainwashed, and forced to become Russian citizens,” Dutch Foreign Minister Woepke Hoekstra claimed from the podium, denouncing “the systemic abduction of Ukrainian children.”

Merrick Garland, the US Attorney General, said after his visit to Lviv that he was “trying to find the people” to identify and “build evidence against” in Russia’s alleged “effort to forcibly deport children.”

During his own address, Khan linked a visit he made to an orphanage inside Ukraine to “allegations that we received that children have been deported outside Ukraine, into the territory of the Russian Federation.”

The ICC website currently features a photograph of Khan posing beside empty cribs in the Ukrainian orphanage he referenced in his speech – an apparent public relations ploy designed to suggest that Putin’s minions had snatched the young children from their beds. While claiming to be just 2 kilometers the front line of a raging battle, Khan sported a kevlar protective helmet for effect.

Yet just months before Khan posed as the fatherly protector of Ukrainian children from the Kremlin’s predatory clutches, a child abuse scandal hit close to his own home.

In May 2022, Khan’s brother, Imran Ahmad Khan, resigned from his seat in the British House of Commons after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Ahmad Khan served 18 months in prison after a judge found him guilty of climbing into the boy’s bunk bed and groping his groin while attempting to ply him with gin and pornography. Following the conviction, a second man accused Ahmad Khan of abusing him as a minor.

While there is no indication Karim Khan provided any legal assistance to his convict brother, The Guardian noted that Ahmad Khan remains “close to his family, particularly his brothers Karim and Khaled, both lawyers, the former a prosecutor at the international criminal court in The Hague.”

Khan relies on State Department-sponsored research for “home run pitch”

During public speeches about Ukraine, Karim Khan often emphasizes his trips to battlegrounds like Bucha and Kharkiv, where the Kiev government accused Russia of  committing grisly war crimes. However, when he introduced the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin, his indictment did not mention any alleged Russian atrocities in either location. Instead, it focused entirely on the supposed deportation of Ukrainian children.

The ICC prosecutor’s warrant was clearly inspired by a Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) report that was funded and supported by the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations – an entity the Biden administration established in May 2022 to advance the prosecution of Russian officials.

 

That State Department-sponsored paper, as The Grayzone revealed, contained long passages contradicting the ICC’s prosecutor’s claims, as well as those its author made in media appearances. In a conversation with journalist Jeremy Loffredo, Yale HRL director Nathaniel Raymond stated that “a large amount” of the Russian youth camps his team researched were “primarily cultural education – like, I would say, teddy bear.”

When asked why his research team did not attempt to visit any programs inside Russia, Raymond said, “We’re persona non grata. We’re considered extensions of US intelligence by the Russians.”

At the same time, the Yale HRL director acknowledged his report was driven by State Department objectives, conducted under “a lot of pressure” from the US National Intelligence Council. He also conceded his team relied on the Pentagon’s US Indo-Pacific Command to “expand our satellite access in the Pacific Command to get the Siberian and eastern camps.”

When asked why Khan did not seek arrest warrants over allegations of Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which dominated Western media coverage for days, Raymond recalled a phone conversation he held with several foreign correspondents from the New York Times in March 2023:

“I was on the phone with the New York Times on Friday – the folks who did the big Bucha investigation, and they were like, basically, ‘Hey, we want to win a Pulitzer Prize on Bucha. We think it’s weird that Khan charged [the transfer of youth] and didn’t charge Bucha.’ And I said, ‘It would have been the worst thing imaginable.’”

 

Raymond explained the prosecutor’s logic: “If Khan had charged Bucha, it would have been catastrophic, because he would have been telegraphing weakness to the Russians. Because Bucha is a massacre. But it doesn’t mean that it is Rome Statute-level in terms of intentional systematic and command-and-control orders. To do that, you need the forensics… ballistics, you need the communications. And there’s no evidence the ICC has that.”

So, according to the Yale HRL director, Khan “started with a home run pitch, and basically said, we’re charging Putin on his own statements in a prima facie evidence-proof [case] on a conservative set of indictments. The transfer and deportation was lowball, he didn’t charge first degree murder.”

“For the New York Times,” Raymond continued, “they’re not going to be happy until Bucha gets charged with all the glitz of an ICC indictment. But [Khan would] be basically saying to Putin: ‘go throw a lieutenant colonel from the paratroopers out the window and you’re cool.’”

Besides providing Khan with the easiest route to an arrest warrant for Putin, the indictment also happened to pack the biggest propaganda punch, enabling the prosecutor to cast himself as the savior of Ukraine’s children.

To that end, he has received critical PR assistance from Amal Clooney, the international lawyer who gained fame as the wife of a Hollywood humanitarian interventionist who is one of the US Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers.

The ICC’s Karim Khan confers with Amal Clooney in April 2022 after appearing at the UN to drum up support for prosecuting Russian officials

The Clooney connection: Khan collaborates with Hollywood humanitarian interventionists

In September 2021, weeks after assuming the role of ICC prosecutor, Khan appointed Amal Clooney as a special advisor to his investigation into atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan. When Russian forces entered Ukraine five months later, Clooney immediately shifted her focus, accepting a Ukrainian government invitation to join their “legal task force on accountability.”

Her collaborative relationship with Khan, which spanned at least a decade, has raised further questions about the ICC cheif’s pledge of “independence, impartiality and integrity.”

The Lebanese-born Amal Clooney first emerged as a global celebrity through her marriage to Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney, himself a prominent humanitarian interventionist who led the campaign to target Sudan’s government and its former president, Omar Bashir, with economic sanctions and genocide charges over its actions in Darfur. The US Israel lobby and then-US president George W. Bush heavily supported the crusade against Khartoum, with the latter threatening to send US troops to the oil-rich region to confront Bashir. For his part, Clooney invoked the memory of Auschwitz to advocate for UN military intervention in the region. Though the subsequent ICC warrant for Bashir’s arrest ultimately proved futile, Clooney’s campaign established his bonafides within the international human rights industry.

In 2016, George Clooney turned his focus to domestic politics, raising what he described as “an obscene amount of money” for the presidential campaign of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Entry costs ran up to $353,400 per couple at the pro-Hillary fundraisers hosted by George and Amal Clooney.

George and Amal Clooney (right) at a 2016 fundraiser they hosted for Hillary Clinton

That same year, George and Amal leveraged their fame to establish the Clooney Foundation for Justice. Like the foundations established by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama after their presidencies, the Clooneys’ initiative relied on funding from liberal billionaires including Bill Gates and George Soros and forged partnerships with Microsoft and the UN. The Clooney Foundation for Justice also lists the US and UK government-sponsored intelligence proxy Bellingcat as an official partner.

The agenda of the Clooneys’ human rights outfit tracks closely with Washington’s foreign policy objectives. The group pushes human rights campaigns in countries where the US seeks regime change, while overlooking well-documented atrocities committed by the US and its allies, including Israel. In Venezuela, for example, which the US has targeted with sanctions and violent military coups in pursuit of regime change, the Clooney Foundation says it is assisting an ICC investigation into President Nicholas Maduro.

While overseeing her foundation, Amal Clooney won several British government appointments, including a two years stint as UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s Special Envoy for Media Freedom, and a role as a formal international legal advisor to the UK Attorney General.

Though Clooney once served on the legal team of jailed Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, she said nothing when Hunt denounced her former client, defended his arrest, and endorsed the journalist’s extradition to the US.

Amal Clooney (left) and UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who appointed her as his Special Envoy on Media Freedom in 2019

In April 2022, the Clooney Foundation announced it would dispatch a team to Kiev to assist the Ukrainian government’s ICC investigation. That month, Amal Clooney appeared on a UN Human Rights Council panel alongside Khan, where she introduced the public to the allegations that Russia’s government was engaged in the mass kidnapping of Ukrainian children for the first time.

“Could it be that thousands of children are being forcibly deported to Russia? Could it be that teenage girls are being raped in the street in front of their family and their neighbors? …Unfortunately, the answer is yes,” Clooney proclaimed, providing no evidence to back her claim.

 

Two months later, Khan and Amal Clooney reunited for a meeting with Ukraine’s General Prosecutor, Irina Venediktova, at the European Union’s Eurojust side-event on prosecuting Russian officials.

 

Next, in September, Khan participated in another Eurojust “cooperation for accountability in Ukraine” side-event co-sponsored by the governments of Ukraine, Germany, Denmark and Netherlands. The ICC prosecutor moderated the panel alongside Amal Clooney and the Ukraine’s new prosecutor, Dmitri Kostrin. (President Zelensky dismissed Venediktova in July over “concerns of treason”).

Khan’s relationship with Amal Clooney began long before either gained international notoriety. Back in 2010, when she was still Amal Alamuddin, the lawyer contributed to a volume of essays which Khan co-edited. Khan has also blurbed a 2022 book Clooney co-authored with British lawyer Philippa Webb, calling it a “a tour de force.” (Like Clooney, Webb is a member of the Kiev-supported “legal task force on accountability for crimes committed in Ukraine”).

The website of the Clooney Foundation for Justice features Khan showering even more praise on Clooney, hailing her as a “a giant [who has] been willing to speak up even though many would rather [she] quietened down…[her] refusal to be muzzled must inspire us not to be muzzled [and her] refusal to lose hope must inspire us to march forward.”

The ICC prosecutor’s adoration for Clooney apparently inspired his decision to keep her as a special advisor to his office, even as she worked for the British and Ukrainian governments – both belligerents in a war with Russia.

The Grayzone queried the ICC prosecutor’s press officer about Khan’s close collaboration with Clooney, inquiring whether her work on behalf of the Ukrainian and British governments compromised Khan’s stated pledge to “independence, impartiality and integrity.” It received no reply.

The ICC’s Khan and UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in London, March 20, 2023

ICC undercuts negotiations with indictment timed for London donor conference

This March 20, exactly one week after issuing an arrest warrant for Putin, Khan appeared in London at an event sponsored by the British and Dutch governments to appeal to the Western states sponsoring the Ukraine proxy war for more money. There, he was seen yukking it up with British Justice Minister Dominic Raab and his counterparts from several NATO states and Ukraine.

The Guardian linked the timing of the Putin arrest warrant to the donor conference, noting, “Khan made his dramatic move against the Russian president last week ahead of a conference in London co-hosted by the UK and the Dutch government aimed at raising cash to fund the ICC’s war crimes investigatory work inside Ukraine.”

With justice ministers 40 UK and UK allies on hand, the confab raised $5 million for the ICC’s mission to prosecute Russian officials.

The donor conference just happened to take place three days after the 20th anniversary of the US and UK-led invasion of Iraq, an event that is estimated to have left over 1 million Iraqis dead. In 2020, the ICC dropped its investigation into British atrocities in Iraq.

Meanwhile, it has been over three months since Khan pledged to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories to further the ICC’s dormant investigation into Israeli abuses. “Nobody knows if Khan has any plans to go to Palestine,” a lawyer representing Palestinian victims of Israeli violence lamented to The Grayzone. “It’s clear that it won’t be a priority.”

It is also clear that the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin has planted another obstacle in the way of a negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine. As a top Zelensky aide, Mykhailo Podalyak, stated on Twitter immediately after the court’s indictment of Putin, “There can be no negotiations with the current Russian elite.”