Scottish human rights lawyer seeks to overturn 'immoral' Donald Trump order

A leading Scottish human rights lawyer has gone to court in an attempt to overturn a controversial order by Donald Trump designed to shield US military personnel from prosecution.

US President Donald Trump signs executive orders extending coronavirus economic relief, during a news conference in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 8, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Steven Watt, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) human rights programme, is part of a landmark legal action against the former Trump administration’s decision to impose sanctions and visa restrictions against staff from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

An executive order, signed in the last year of Trump’s presidency, deemed any attempts by the court to investigate, arrest, or prosecute any US national as an “extraordinary threat” to the country’s national security and foreign policy.

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It declared a “national emergency” over any such efforts by the ICC, which Trump’s order said threatened the sovereignty of the US.

However, the order has been widely condemned by the EU and human rights organisations, with the ICC itself describing it as “an unacceptable attempt to interfere with the rule of law and the court’s judicial proceedings.”

The ACLU warned that under the terms of the “immoral” order, it authorised sanctions against individuals who assist the ICC in investigating or prosecuting war crimes and other grave human rights violations

Now, Watt is one of four plaintiffs in a legal action seeking to invalidate the order, stressing that it is having a “disastrous” impact.

Watt, who read law at the University of Aberdeen, and holds a diploma in legal practice from the University of Edinburgh, said that it threatens to hinder his work and that of the ACLU.

Scottish human rights lawyer has gone to court seeking to overturn a controversial executive order by Donald Trump. Picture: ACLU/Molly Kaplan

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“The ICC represents the last hope for justice for my clients, survivors and victims of war crimes committed by the CIA in Afghanistan,” explained Watt.

“The Trump administration’s unprecedented abuse of sanctions power tries to extinguish that hope. The executive order is disastrous for accountability and justice, and it violates the first amendment.”

Watt has represented numerous victims of CIA torture over the years They include Libyan Mohamed Ben Soud, and Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian national, who were held and brutalised in a Afghanistan facility.

An unidentified detainee in Iraq's Abu Ghraib, which at the centre of a torture scandal. Picture: AP

They filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and John Jessen, psychologists contracted by the CIA to devise an array of coercive interrogation techniques. A confidential settlement was reached in 2017.

While Joe Biden has issued a flurry of his own executive orders since taking office so as to overturn a host of Trump’s policies, the order against the ICC remains in place. The US State Department said that the sanctions in place as a result of the order would be “thoroughly reviewed.”

The ACLU said it would proceed with its latest lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, unless it is overturned beforehand by the new administration.

Scarlet Kim, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national security project, told Scotland on Sunday: “ The ICC sanctions executive order is yet another terrible legacy of the Trump administration, which made clear its disregard for human rights and the rule of law. The Biden administration should immediately reverse course by fully rescinding the order.”

Trump’s executive order was issued just three months after senior judges at the ICC authorised an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by US, Afghan, and Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

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