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Top ten criminal case developments of 2013

10:03 31/12/2013

Ingrid Burke, RAPSI

As far as worldwide crime fighting goes, 2013 has been an epic year. Zeroing in on the ten most important criminal developments of the year is anything but easy. We compromised on the present list of ten cases based on a series of criteria, including global reach and concrete legal impact. Certain cases that have relentlessly maintained their media-firestorm status, such as the 9/11 Khalid Sheikh Mohamed case or the Trayvon Martin murder case failed to make the cut, while lower-profile cases such as Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s exhumation and a major Canadian sex-ring victory did. What we are left with is a colorful, albeit non-exhaustive array of the year’s top ten criminal cases.

The Hero/Traitor Complex: Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” – Albert Camus

When one publically reveals classified information acquired through an official security clearance, is that person a whistleblower or a traitor or both? What if our hypothetical leaker was motivated at least in part by the desire to expose possible official wrongdoing, or should that even matter where national security is concerned? These questions fed this year’s endless and often trite debate in the daily news as poster-children Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden dominated global headlines. A lack of clear legal delineation between the whistleblower and the spy/traitor have left the public to draw its own conclusions, opinions which tend to be driven more by political emotions than by logic.

One side says that transparency and democracy have been advanced as imperatives over the years in ensuring fundamental rights and freedom for all. Essentially, if you run a clean operation – you have nothing to hide, right?

Another side argues that it would be naïve to believe that transparency and other such democratic values should preempt considerations of national security, no matter how attractive those ideals might seem. The fact is, in cases involving a country’s most sensitive national security tactics and operations – to lay your cards on the table is to essentially offer would-be enemies a free training course in evasion as well as exposing your own people to arrest and murder.

Manning

In July, a military tribunal found Bradley Manning guilty on five espionage counts, theft and computer fraud. The defendant, who now prefers to be called Chelsea, had already pleaded guilty to nearly a dozen lesser charges that carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. According to advocacy group the Bradley Manning Support Network’s website, Manning was accused of having leaked a video showing US soldiers killing unarmed civilians in Iraq, including a photojournalist for Reuters and his driver. He was further accused of having leaked a multitude of Army reports and diplomatic cables.

Manning was quoted as having said of the leaks, “I believed and still believe these are some of most important documents of our time,” and then of having defended his decision to disclose on the basis of having wanted to ignite a domestic dialogue on America’s war on terror. In his view, the footage needed to be seen by the American public, as its government had become “obsessed with capturing and killing people.” In August Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Snowden

Edward Snowden dominated international headlines over the summer after claiming responsibility for having leaked top-secret documents to The Guardian, detailing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) capacity to access the systems of such major US companies as Google, Facebook, and Apple. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all denied having provided direct or backdoor access to their servers.

He fled to Hong Kong prior to publicly identifying himself, but has remained mostly in hiding since. In an interview with The Guardian conducted from Hong Kong, Snowden expressed his desire to seek asylum in a country that shares his values. According to Snowden, “The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over Internet freedom. I have no idea what my future is going to be.”

After the initial leak, Snowden went on to expose various other types of intelligence, including claims that the US had been spying on some of its close European allies.

The hero/traitor debate has been hushed in recent months, as Snowden has disappeared into his private life after having been granted temporary asylum in Russia, and as Manning has begun to serve out his sentence. But the debate itself has inspired a crucial dialectic as we move forward with technological advancements, and as – in the midst of national security concerns – our rights to privacy seem to be closing in on us.

The New Face of Terror: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

On April 15, two blasts occurred near the finish line of arguably the world’s most prestigious long-distance race, the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed three people and – in the words of a related indictment, “maimed, burned and wounded scores of others.”

The following four days were consumed by a dramatic and at times extremely violent manhunt for the suspects, who were identified by name on April 19 as Dzhokhar (then 19) and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26). Tamerlan was killed during a police shootout, and Dzhokhar was arrested on the evening of April 19 after having been discovered hiding in a dry-docked boat in the Boston suburb of Watertown.

A federal grand jury indictment handed down in late June formally charged Dzhokhar with 30 counts relating to the bombing, 17 of which carry sentences of up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

As US Attorney General Eric Holder mulls whether to pursue the death penalty, it is clear that Dzhokhar presents a unique issue insofar as everything about him challenges thepopular vision of the face of terrorism: he doesn’t look frightening. Instead, he looks like he could be a member of the newest boy band to top the pop charts. In fact, his youthful good looks have attracted a legion of actual adolescent girl fans. In addition, the nuances of his story have aroused the suspicions of a small army of conspiracy theorists with governmental trust issues.

The image of this seemingly typical American teenager contrasts starkly with the justification provided by Attorney General Holder in an August 27 memo imposing against Dzhokhar a variety of restrictions referred to as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), based on the finding that Tsarnaev bore the “substantial risk that his communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons.”

Among the reasons included in the Attorney General’s memo substantiating these findings was the assertion that Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan, “were inspired to commit the attack by Anwar al-Aulaqui, a deceased leader of al-Qaeda, and used bomb-making instructions from ‘Inspire,’ an al-Qaeda publication.” Notably, al-Aulaqui is one of four US citizens who the US government famously acknowledged having targeted in lethal strikes in a May 22, 2013 letter originally obtained by The New York Times.

Then, around April 22, Dzhokhar “reaffirmed his commitment to jihad and expressed hope that his actions would inspire others to engage in violent jihad,” the August 27 memo added, noting that there had not been any indication that the defendant’s actions had since changed.

Herein lies the challenge of the Tsarnaev case. His youth and projected image as a typical American teen complicate matters. Some have suggested that perhaps Dzhokhar was just young and malleable, as so many teens are. At the same time, vague sympathies for the folly of youth won’t bring back the people Tsarnaev is accused of having murdered.

Belated justice? Pablo Nerudo

“But from each crime are born bullets that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies.” – Pablo Neruda

In 1971, legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams," in the words of the Nobel Committee.

In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup that ended with the death of then-president Salvador Allende. With this, Pinochet took the reins – launching the start of a period that would go down in history as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. According to Amnesty International, “Tens of thousands of people were detained, tortured, killed or disappeared. The total number of people officially recognized as disappeared in Chile or killed between 1973 and 1990 stands at over 3,000 and survivors of political imprisonment and/or torture at around 40,000.”

Twelve days after Allende died – officially, as a result of suicide committed with an AK-47 given to the left-wing leader by Cuba’s Fidel Castro – Neruda died suddenly while attempting to flee the country.

The official cause of his death was cancer. Owing to Neruda’s leftist political views and close relations with Allende, the coroner’s verdict was dismissed by countless conspiracy theories over the years. 

The conspiracy theories surrounding the poet’s death were gradually forgotten. However in 2011, The Santiago Times reported, a witness came forward. Chauffer Manuel Araya recounted Neruda having been in good health as he prepared to escape Pinochet’s Chile, and then having suddenly become feverish. Araya claimed that Nerudo begged him, “Come quickly, because while I was sleeping a doctor came in and gave me an injection.” Araya then reportedly attempted to procure medicine for Neruda, but was arrested en route. He learned of his boss’ demise upon being released. This fed speculation that Neruda had been poisoned by a CIA operative working as an assassin for the Pinochet regime, Michael Townely.

Chile’s government launched an investigation into the matter in 2011, and by order of a judge, Neruda’s body was exhumed in April. Then in early November 2013, the BBC reported that no traces of poison had been found in Neruda’s body, and his remains seemed to support the official version – that his death owed to advanced prostate cancer.

However, conspiracy theories die hard. The BBC cited Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras as having stated, "The Neruda case doesn't close today… Today we are going to request more samples. They referred to chemical agents but there are no studies about biological agents. A very important chapter has closed and was done very seriously but this is not over."

A course in Patience & extradition: Abu Hamza 

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

2013 marked the first year that things really got underway in the US trial against infamous terror suspect Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, better known as Abu Hamza – a man that fought tooth and nail to avoid extradition from the UK to the US, where he faces a slew of charges in connection with a 1998 hostage crisis in Yemen, the attempted establishment of a “jihad training camp” in Oregon, and the support of “violent jihad” in Afghanistan between 2000 and 2001. 

A review of Abu Hamza’s case history shows that not a month went by in 2013 without pre-trial process – whether the form of status conferences, filings, court orders, etc. Although charges were initially launched against him nearly a decade ago in 2004 – the wealth of pre-trial activity this year makes sense when considered in light of this having been his first full year in the US, after an epic battle to avoid extradition. 

In May 2004, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that he had been arrested in London in connection with terrorism charges filed against him in the US. The statement added that the US government was actively seeking Abu Hamza’s extradition from the UK. The statement conveyed confidence on the part of US prosecutors that Abu Hamza would be brought to justice.What followed was a years-long extradition battle that ended up in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Stripped to its barebones, here’s what happened in the Abu Hamza legal exodus:

•    A US Grand Jury returned an indictment against Abu Hamza on April 19, 2004.

•    On May 21, 2004 the US  formally requested the suspect’s extradition.

•    In October 2004, Abu Hamza was charged with “various counts of soliciting to murder and stirring up racial hatred.” The extradition proceedings against Abu Hamza were adjourned when he was convicted in the UK and sentenced to seven years in prison. However, the proceedings resumed when the appeals process had reached its conclusion.

•    In November 2007, a UK District Court judge ruled that Abu Hamza should be extradited.

•    Subsequently, in February 2008 the UK Secretary of State upheld the UK District Court’s decision.

•    Abu Hamza then appealed to the UK High Court, which dismissed the appeal in June 2008. He subsequently applied for leave to appeal to the House of Lords. In July 2008, the BBC reported that Abu Hamza had been refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

•    Abu Hamza filed an application with the ECHR on August 1, 2008.

•    Almost four years later, in April 2012, the ECHR held that there would be no violation of the European Convention on Human Rights Convention if Abu Hamza were extradited to the US. The judgment became final on September 24, 2012.

•    The DOJ announced in October 2012 that Abu Hamza had arrived in New York following his extradition from the UK, and is presently set to face trial on April 14, 2014.

During his time in the UK, Abu Hamza came to be something of a fixture in the British tabloid circuit, owing to which his propensity toward wearing a hook on one of his two amputated forearms gained a certain degree of notoriety. The London Evening Standard reported in March, however, that Abu Hamza had received new plastic prosthetics after having been extradited to the US. The newspaper estimated that the  accused terrorist’s prosthetic hand cost the US taxpayer $15,000.

The Abu Hamza case registers on our list this year owing to the fact that patience on the part of the US authorities seems to have paid off after nearly a decade, the passage of which has served as something of a survey course for onlookers in avoiding extradition under British law.

An Honorable Profession? The News of the World

Will McAvoy: “What does winning look like to you?”

Mackenzie MacHale: Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession.”

– The Newsroom

Following years of rumors and suspicion that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World (NOTW) had engaged in phone hacking, The Guardian reported in July 2011 that the NOTW had hacked into the phone of a teenaged girl named Milly Dowler after she went missing. According to a BBC backgrounder on the issue, upwards of 4,000 people may have been victimized by the NOTW hacks, with victims including politicians, celebrities, actors, athletes, the families of fallen soldiers, and individuals connected with the 7/7 bombings in London. The NOTW was shut down in the direct aftermath of the Milly Dowler revelations, according to the BBC.

Former NOTW editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are presently standing trial over allegations of having conspired to gain illegal access to voice messages on the cell phones of politicians, celebrities, crime victims, and others, in order to gain a competitive edge in the news industry, according to the report.

In July 2012, the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that Brooks and Coulson would both be charged alongside several co-accused with conspiracy to intercept communications without lawful authority during a period ranging from between October 2000 and August 2006.

The CPS statement added, “The communications in question are the voicemail messages of well-known people and/or those associated with them.

There is a schedule containing the names of over 600 people whom the prosecution will say are the victims of this offence.”

The announcement stated that Brooks and Coulson would each face additional charges connected with specific victims.

In May 2012, Brooks was likewise charged alongside several co-accused with offenses relating to the obstruction of justice, including conspiracy to remove seven boxes of material from the News International archive, and attempts to hide documents, computers, and other electronic equipment from the London Metropolitan Police Service, according to a CPS statement released at the time.

In November 2012, the CPS announced that Coulson and Brooks, among others, had been charged with violations relating to conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

Their trial will undoubtedly combine gossip column style intrigue with sincere ethical considerations that the media industry as a whole will be required to grapple with as journalistic integrity continues to try to find its place in a world where new technologies threaten even the most intimate corners of the fundamental right to privacy.

”The promise of universal justice” and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta

“The more laws, the less justice.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan famously described the imperative of establishing an international criminal court in terms of the protection of innocent victims of distant wars, by saying: “In the prospect of an international criminal court lies the promise of universal justice.”

Delivering on this promise has proven problematic. The goal in establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) was obviously justice, specifically by means of accountability for all. However, because it was a diplomatic/political construct, it inevitably sort of runs on soft law - or basically law that requires political will to enforce. This has a tendency to foster situation where political stability and diplomacy play much stronger roles in terms of who can be indicted and for what.

The Rome Statute laid out the legal framework for the establishment of such a court. Initially adopted by 120 states on 17 July 1998, the Rome Statute entered into force after having been ratified by 60 states in July 2002.

In March 2011, standing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was summoned to appear before the International Criminal Court in connection with violence following the 2007 presidential elections. Kenyatta faces a range of charges of crimes against humanity before the international court, including murder, deportation or forcible transfer, rape, persecution, and “other inhumane acts.” The case is presently ongoing, with trial set to begin in early 2014.

The Kenyatta case dragged to the forefront allegations of ICC bias during the course of 2013. In a speech delivered in October of this year, Kenyatta proclaimed: “It is the fact that this court performs on the cue of European and American governments against the sovereignty of African States and peoples that should outrage us. People have termed this situation “race-hunting”. I find great difficulty adjudging them wrong.”

In May African Union (AU) Chairman and Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn accused the ICC or racism. He was quoted by Reuters as having told reporters at the end of the AU summit in Addis Ababa: “The intention was to avoid any kind of impunity but now the process has degenerated into some kind of race-hunting.”

Asked about the veracity of the sentiment, our experts both pointed to an issue more subtle than overt racism: that of having well-positioned friends.

William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University London and author of The International Criminal Court: A Commentary on the Rome Statute, among numerous other publications, explained to RAPSI for a profile of the ICC: “The fact that the Court seems obsessed with African situations does not make it a racist court. If the Court had ignored Africa, it would have been accused of racism too. Charges of racism do not help to understand the Court's selection of priorities for prosecution. It is focused exclusively on Africa because it is afraid to go elsewhere. It receives favourable signals from countries like the US, who are happy to see it confined to Africa.”

For the same ICC profile, Peter Erlinder, professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law, former Lead Defense Counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and Founding Director of the International Humanitarian Law Institute, asserted, “It is certainly true that all of the defendants at the ICC have been African which, in part, has been because the ICC has focused on African conflicts. But why is that, instead of Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even the Caucuses? The answer is the UN Security Council, or course.”

The Kenyatta case was recently described in the New York Times as the highest-profile case taken up by the ICC to date. Thus as the court deals with issues of sovereignty and allegations of racism, the world will be watching closely to see just how effectively the balance between diplomacy and the rule of law can be struck. In particular, will the receipt mercy or justice remain a matter of geography?

Bo Xilai’s fall from political grace

“How the mighty have fallen.” - 2 Samuel 1:25

Bo Xilai had the whole world at his fingertips. He was a popular politician in his own right, serving as Secretary of the Chongqing branch of China’s Communist Party and  in addition to being the son of a senior Communist Party leader. Bo Xilai had an impossibly bright political future. Then his world began to collapse.

According to a backgrounder compiled by the BBC, Bo was charged with abuse of power, corruption, and bribery in July 2013. His trial spanned four days in late August. In September he was found guilty of all charges and handed a life sentence. He appealed the verdict but, in October, a court threw out his appeal. 

It was widely reported that things turned sour for Bo after Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing sought asylum in the US after the two reportedly had a falling out.

This was only the latest in a series of incidents that have brought down what once was a political powerhouse of a family. His wife Bogu Kailai made RAPSI’s 2012 top 10 list after she was handed a suspended life sentence for the murder of an English businessman Neil Haywood.

Bo’s dramatic fall from grace was a key event in 2013 insofar as it served as a rare but vivid illustration of party discord in the period leading up to a major power shift in China.

Oscar Pistorius’ fall from athletic grace

“Nothing gold can stay.” – Robert Frost

Oscar Pistorius had the sort of life that begged to be frozen in still frames and cut together as a montage with Chariots of Fire playing in the background. A double amputee, Pisotrius overcame enormous odds to become a true champion at his sport. The so-called “blade runner” won six Paralympic gold medals and even competed in the 2012 London Olympics.

It was against this backdrop that the allegations emerged this Valentine’s Day that Pistorius had shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. It was widely reported that Steenkamp was shot several times while locked in the bathroom of Pistorius’ home. Pistorius has been charged with premeditated murder, though he maintains that he had shot her under the mistaken belief that she was an intruder.

As the public grappled with the golden boy’s fall from grace, his checkered past began to reveal itself. The Independent reported in November that South African prosecutors had recently added new charges against Pistorius, alleging that he had fired his gun recklessly in public weeks prior to Steenkamp’s death. According to the report, the new charges will be heard alongside his murder charges. He is specifically accused of having fired a friend’s weapon while at a restaurant in January, and of having fired out of the sunroof of a car the same handgun used to kill Steenkamp.

The Cambodian adventures of Sergei Polonsky

“When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.” – Oscar Wilde

Sergei Polonsky first dominated international headlines in the fall of 2011 when billionaire media mogul Alexander Lebedev attacked him on national TV, back-alley brawl style. Lebedev and Polonsky were both guests on a program about the financial crisis hosted by Russian news channel NTV.

After a relatively subdued 2012, Polonsky has lived this year like a character in an exotic Hollywood thriller. Polonsky began by being detained in Cambodia, accused of threatening a crew of local sailors with knives, locking them in a cabin, and then forcing them to jump overboard. As a result, the billionaire spent the first part of the new year in an anything but deluxe Cambodian prison cell waiting to find out whether a recent out-of-court settlement with the crewmembers would buy his way out of criminal liability. Although the sailors readily dropped their claims upon receiving Polonsky’s offer to dole out damages, Polonsky’s troubles didn’t end there. He was released on bail in April but ordered not to leave the country.

Alas, the billionaire wasted no time after his release before fleeing to Israel, where he immediately applied for citizenship. Shortly thereafter, he was charged in absentia in Russia in connection with the alleged embezzlement of upwards of 5.7 billion rubles from a residential construction project in Moscow’s city center.

Reasoning that he wanted to stand trial, Polonsky returned to Cambodia. In November, he was detained there at the request of Russian authorities seeking his extradition. Thus, he has found himself once again in Cambodian jail. More specifically, in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Phnom Pehn.

Not one to go down without a fight, Polonsky filed four motions with a Cambodian court in late November initiating criminal cases against several Russian businessmen living in Cambodia, as reported by local news agency the Phnom Pehn Post. The tycoon’s Cambodian lawyer explained that his client is accusing these unidentified businessmen of having extorted hundreds of millions of dollars.

As if his year had lacked sufficient international intrigue and scandal, Polonsky’s Russian attorney Alexander Karabanov told journalists that the US has offered the troubled billionaire political asylum.

Teamwork and Canada’s Child Sex Abuse Bust

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” ― Helen Keller

Canada’s Toronto Police Service announced in November that 341 people had been arrested and 386 children rescued from exploitation as the result of a three-year investigation targeting international child exploitation.

According to the police statement, the service’s Child Exploitation Section got in touch with a Toronto man who had allegedly shared images of sexual abuse being committed against children. Concluding upon investigating the matter that the man might be operating a movie production and distribution company centering on child exploitation, the police service teamed up with the United States Postal Inspection Service to expand its investigative efforts.

On May 1, 2011, a man was arrested on allegations that he had been operating a website that sold and distributed child exploitation films and images worldwide. According to the statement, he had paid different people to film the children featured in these films, which were in turn sold on the website. The company earned revenues of upwards of $4 million, the statement reads.

Toronto police then tracked the identities of customers of the site around the world, resulting in 341 arrests and the rescue of 386 children.

The statement credits the participation of a wide range of international agencies for the successful outcome of the operation. Countries represented amidst the agencies include: the US, Australia, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, Ireland, Greece, and Gibraltar.

This made our list because it shows what can be accomplished when law enforcement agencies around the world work together to combat a criminal activity larger than any of their individual jurisdictions.

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Top ten criminal case developments of 2013

10:03 31/12/2013 As far as worldwide crime fighting goes, 2013 has been an epic year. Zeroing in on the ten most important criminal developments of the year is anything but easy. We compromised on the present list of ten cases based on a series of criteria, including global reach and concrete legal impact.
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