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International experts call for post-conflict Syrian war crimes tribunal

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AMSTERDAM - A group of international war crimes experts is calling for the creation of a special tribunal in the Syrian capital to try any top-ranking officials, soldiers or rebels who may have committed atrocities during the country's civil war.

Professor Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University, acting as spokesman, showed The Associated Press a copy of the draft statutes that have been quietly under development for nearly two years. They could serve as a template for such a tribunal after the civil war ends.

He said Friday that U.S. diplomats also have copies of the 30-page document, and are sympathetic to the idea of a Syrian war crimes court.

"We believe it's playing a role in closed-door discussions throughout the U.S. government," Scharf said.

He said the group wants to push the issue of accountability for war crimes into the ongoing international discussions over Syria, and hopes the prospect will deter combatants from committing further atrocities, such as the violation of the Geneva Protocol in the Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court — the permanent war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. The ICC doesn't have jurisdiction over war crimes committed there unless the U.N. Security Council grants it.

However, conflict-specific war crime courts such as the proposed Syrian court have been created in individual countries in recent years. Scharf himself was an adviser to judges at the Iraqi High Tribunal, which tried Saddam Hussein.

The experts who participated in creating the Syrian draft statutes, which are to be formally introduced at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday, have no political power, though they are well-respected figures internationally.

They include Egyptian-born legal scholar Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, who chaired the drafting of the ICC's statutes, and South Africa's Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, among others.

Sharif Shehadeh, a Syrian legislator and political analyst, told The Associated Press that he believes Syria's legal system is equipped to prosecute anyone — civilians or soldiers — who commit such crimes. But he also questioned whether a proposed special tribunal in Damascus would be able to arrest and prosecute rebels who have "committed massacres against Christians ... and ruined churches and mosques."

Loay al-Mikdad, spokesman for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, welcomed the initiative.

"Any type of justice, especially based on international law, will help the Syrian people," he said in an interview. "We are sure we need the international community's help."

He said those who committed crimes against humanity, whether fighting on the rebel side or for the government, should face justice.

"The revolution is not an excuse to do bad things," al-Mikdad said. "If there are some rebels, any of them, that did anything against humanity or the law, they should face justice."

Human Rights Watch spokesman Richard Dicker in New York said Friday his organization supports prosecution of war crimes, but top suspects should be tried in The Hague because if they have been on the losing side of a conflict they are unlikely to receive a fair trial at home.

"What makes ICC involvement so critical is the reality that atrocities have been committed on both sides," he said. "It's imperative that you have impartial application of the law."

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Contributions from Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Ryan Lucas in Beirut.

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