ICC prosecutors to probe 2008 alleged war crimes in Georgia
Judges at the world's only permanent war crimes court Wednesday gave prosecutors permission to launch their first investigation outside of Africa, approving a probe into alleged abuses during a brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
It will be the first inquiry by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into accusations of abuses by Moscow, and was widely welcomed by human rights groups which said neither side had yet held to account those behind a wave of killing and looting.
The news comes amid tensions between Russia and other nations, fuelled by Moscow's support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally requested in October to be allowed to open a full investigation into the 2008 war in South Ossetia.
She told judges then that her preliminary findings had found evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The three-strong panel agreed with her on Wednesday, concluding "that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the ICC's jurisdiction have been committed in the situation in Georgia."
They therefore "authorised the prosecutor to proceed with an investigation" into crimes said to have been "committed in and around South Ossetia, Georgia, between 1 July and 10 October 2008."
The allegations included "crimes against humanity, such as murder, forcible transfer of population and persecution, and war crimes, such as attacks against the civilian population, wilful killing."
The prosecutor's office has also launched another probe which targets Russia -- with a preliminary inquiry into possible war crimes committed since February 2014 in Ukraine during fighting in the east between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow separatist forces.
This preliminary probe would be to determine whether a fuller investigation -- as will now take place in South Ossetia -- is merited.
On the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgia's then Western-backed president Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive to reclaim the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
But he was caught by surprise when Moscow launched a swift counter-offensive with Russian forces sweeping into Georgia.
After winning the brief war, Russia officially recognised South Ossetia -- along with another breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia -- as independent states, tightening its grip on the two territories.
Together the two regions comprise some 20 percent of Georgian territory.
- Tens of thousands displaced -
According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for refugees, hundreds of people died during the fighting.
And the ICC prosecutors believe that even though most people have since returned home in the intervening years, some 138,000 ethnic Georgians were displaced in South Ossetia.
"The ethnic Georgian population living in the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 percent," prosecutors have said.
"An ICC investigation will restart justice efforts for victims," said Elizabeth Evenson, senior international counsel at Human Rights Watch.
"It's been more than seven years since the war ended, but neither Georgia nor Russia has held to account those responsible for unlawful civilian killings, looting, and torching of homes."
The decision comes at a busy time for the ICC, with the long-awaited trial of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on charges of crimes against humanity due to open on Thursday.
It may also help mitigate criticism levelled against the ICC, set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes, that it has so far only targeted African nations.
Bensouda has repeatedly denied that accusation, telling AFP late last year that it was "a blanket criticism" which does not "match the reality."
© 2016 AFP