The Polarizing Prosecutor Trying to Nail Putin for War Crimes

Karim Khan vowed to turn around his office’s losing record. But if his case against Putin backfires, it could hurt the court’s already-battered reputation.

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the site of a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike late November, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the town of Vyshhorod, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, February 28, 2023. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko - RC2DKZ9ZBBT5
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the site of a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2023. Photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters/Redux

As a prosecutor in the Special Court for Sierra Leone rose to deliver the opening statement in the war crimes and crimes against humanity trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, Taylor’s attorney stood up to leave.

“Mr. Khan, you have not been given leave to withdraw. You don’t just get up and waltz out of here,” the presiding judge warned the defense attorney, Karim Khan, according to a transcript of the 2007 proceedings in The Hague. Khan did just that.

The walkout, following a dispute regarding the resources allotted to the defense, was a bold, spectacular move that angered many but successfully delayed Taylor’s trial by several months. Khan’s gesture became legendary in international law circles, earning him either admiration or disdain, depending on who you ask. Stephen Rapp, the prosecutor who Khan walked out on, wrote in an email to colleagues years later that Khan’s behavior had been “an act of profound disrespect for international criminal justice.”

The court eventually granted more resources to Taylor’s defense, but he was ultimately found guilty, becoming the first former head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials. And the move didn’t harm Khan’s career, which also saw him involved in proceedings over crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Lebanon, as well as at the helm of the United Nations team investigating crimes committed by the Islamic State group.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, center, and defense lawyer Karim Khan, left, appear in court on July 21, 2006, at The Hague, Netherlands.

Photo: Rob Keeris/AFP via Getty Images

In 2021, Khan, a British citizen, was elected as the third prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, a struggling institution whose record he pledged to improve. Khan’s election was controversial, with observers questioning the ethics of his involvement in the defense of current Kenyan President William Ruto and lobbying by several governments in support of Khan, who did not initially make it through the formal vetting process.

Nearly two years into a nine-year term, Khan has developed a reputation as a forceful and sometimes brutal operative who is as savvy in the political arena as he is in the courtroom. The Intercept spoke with more than a dozen people who have known him professionally over the years, including some who left the ICC prosecutor’s office after he arrived. They painted a picture of a divisive yet respected litigator, who can commandeer attention to himself and resources to his institution, and whose skills are better used going after war criminals rather than defending them. His aggressive demeanor inspires fear in the small world of international criminal law, with many people requesting anonymity to discuss their experiences with Khan, citing fears of retribution. Khan declined an interview request, and in response to questions from The Intercept, a spokesperson for his office mostly pointed to past public statements by Khan.

Now, the prosecutor faces his biggest test yet. Last month, he stunned the international law community when he obtained an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior Kremlin official Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, over their alleged role in the deportation of Ukrainian children: a war crime.

The announcement catapulted the ICC into the spotlight and earned Khan the approval even of many of his critics. Like the walkout from the Taylor trial, seeking an arrest warrant for Putin himself was a risky, spectacular move — in line with the combative, scorched-earth style that has defined Khan’s career.

“He understands when it’s necessary to be bold to push the accountability agenda,” said Christopher Gosnell, a senior legal officer at the U.N., who has known Khan for years and worked with him at UNITAD, the U.N. team investigating crimes by the Islamic State group. “The whole history of international criminal law is these moments where things are pushed forward by quantum leaps. And there are those who are passive and there are those who spot the right moments, and he knows how to do that and does it really well.”

Seeking an arrest warrant for Putin himself was a risky, spectacular move — in line with the combative, scorched-earth style that has defined Khan’s career.

The warrant helped raise the ICC and Khan’s profile and demonstrated that the court can be responsive to the moment. And pressure continues to build for the Russian president to face accountability under international law, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy giving a speech at The Hague on Thursday. Yet Putin is unlikely to find himself in a Hague courtroom anytime soon, and the warrant could put other governments in a bind as they seek a diplomatic end to the war in Ukraine. Last week, South Africa — where Putin is invited to a summit later this year — declared its intention to leave the court over the warrant, before backtracking.

The announcement also seemed aimed at siphoning some of the momentum around establishing a special tribunal to investigate Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — a crime the ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction over in this instance. Khan has long opposed calls for a special tribunal that would sideline the ICC and compete for resources, at one point calling such ad hoc prosecutions “self-indulgent.”

By going straight to the top of the command chain, to Putin himself, Khan demonstrated that the ICC can take on the most senior officials responsible for the crimes committed in Ukraine, even when its jurisdiction is limited. But if his move backfires, it could further damage the court’s battered reputation and make it even harder to pursue accountability from heads of state who commit war crimes.

“He really has to show that he can be effective on this,” said Rapp, the Special Court for Sierra Leone prosecutor and a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, who praised Khan’s work in Ukraine. “And at the same time, he’s got to show that [Ukraine] is not the only situation in the world.”

Facade with bridge and moat from west. International Criminal Court (ICC) Den Haag, Den Haag, Netherlands. Architect: Schmidt Hammer & Lassen Ltd, 2015. (Photo by: Anthony Coleman/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Photo: Anthony Coleman/Universal Images Group via Getty

A Court in Crisis

At the ICC, Khan took over an office that had been struggling to find its footing since the court began operating in 2002. The first prosecutor, the Argentine Luis Moreno Ocampo, at first treaded cautiously, targeting relatively low-level rebel leaders, before suddenly reversing course and rushing into risky, high-profile cases against former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer who succeeded Ocampo, was largely credited with bringing order to the court. She opened several preliminary probes and full-scale investigations, though many moved at a pace that court insiders and advocates often found frustratingly slow. Bensouda built a reputation as a meticulous, sober leader, who was nonetheless not particularly effective at getting cases to trial and securing convictions. By the end of the first two prosecutors’ terms, the office had a rather underwhelming record: only a handful of convictions, all in Africa, and none of state officials.

In his application for the ICC job, Khan addressed those failures and pledged to reverse them.

“We have witnessed many instances of survivors — as well as the international community and civil society — being promised much, but receiving little,” he wrote in a letter submitted as part of the process. “An [Office of the Prosecutor] that can conduct independent and impartial investigations and build cases on solid evidence is one that will meet expectations and help foster fair trials.”

Khan was not originally on a shortlist of candidates recommended for the position by a committee tasked with vetting prospective prosecutors, but his supporters lobbied hard for him, buoyed by British support as well as by a campaign by Kenyan officials. (Khan’s spokesperson declined to comment on his initial exclusion from the shortlist). The latter’s involvement was particularly fraught as Khan had represented Ruto, who was deputy president at the time, when the ICC charged him with crimes against humanity in connection to pre-election violence, in 2007, that led to hundreds of people being killed.

The ICC dropped the charges against Ruto in 2016, citing “troubling incidence of witness interference and intolerable political meddling.” A key witness in the case had been killed two years earlier. Khan maintains he did everything in his power to protect the witness, but many people have nonetheless questioned his role in the case. A former member of the prosecutor’s office, who left before Khan’s election and has knowledge of the case, framed the concern around possible witness tampering this way: “The interference was so rampant that it’s hard to see a circumstance where he might not have had at least some form of knowledge as to what was going on.”

Some Kenyan civil society groups opposed Khan’s ICC candidacy, with Gladwell Otieno, founder and executive director of the Africa Centre for Open Governance, condemning his “over-enthusiastic embrace of his client’s and the Kenya government’s political vendetta against the ICC, going far beyond the trenchant defence of his client’s interests in court.”

2013-09-10 Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto ( R) reacts as he sits in the courtroom before their trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague September 10, 2013. Ruto appeared at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday for the opening of his trial on charges of co-orchestrating a post-election bloodbath five years ago. Ruto and his co-accused, the broadcaster Joshua arap Sang, could face long prison terms if convicted.To the left is defense counsel Karim Khan. REUTERS/Michael Kooren (NETHERLANDS) (POOL) netherlands out - belgium out (Photo by MICHAEL KOOREN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MICHAEL KOOREN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto, right, reacts as he sits in the courtroom with Karim Khan, left, before their trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Sept. 10, 2013.

Photo: Michael Kooren/AFP via Getty Images

In an open letter written at the time, Khan firmly rejected the accusations. “Four Kenyan NGO’s attempt to create a spectre against me in this election process relating to the death of Mr. Meshack Yebei some years ago,” he wrote, referring to the witness who was killed, whom he had referred to the ICC’s witness protection program. “Their very limited knowledge of the details and the lack of publicly available information on the subject has, perhaps, been fodder for their misinformed statements. … I am not able to disclose the source of alleged threats against Mr. Yebei that grounded my request for his protection, save to say I did everything ethically within my power to ensure Mr. Yebei and his family were safe.”

In an interview he gave shortly before taking office, Khan suggested his actions during the Ruto trial — including fierce criticism of the prosecutor’s office for bringing the case — were “part and parcel of courtroom advocacy.”

“It’s much better to have Karim Khan as prosecutor of the ICC than to have Karim Khan as defense lawyer for Vladimir Putin.”

Despite the controversy, Khan’s supporters praised him as the bold leader they say the field of international justice needs. “I always hoped to have him on our side, because he was winning all these cases on defense,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer who has represented victims for years and worked with Khan on the Khmer Rouge trials. “It’s much better to have Karim Khan as prosecutor of the ICC than to have Karim Khan as defense lawyer for Vladimir Putin.”

When he came into office, Khan had to contend not only with a poor conviction rate under his predecessors, but also a long-standing credibility problem and a widespread sense that the ICC is, as Werner put it — quoting a colleague in the field — “strong against the weak and weak against the strong.”

“I think we have to be clear about the fact that the court was not working the way everybody had hoped,” said Werner, who runs Civitas Maxima, an international network of lawyers representing victims of mass crimes. “There was a very big efficiency issue, and the fear that the ICC at some point would become so ineffective that it would not bother anyone anymore.”

Gosnell, Khan’s colleague at UNITAD, said Khan was the leader to turn the court’s fate around.

“The ICC was kind of drifting, frankly, by the time he arrived,” Gosnell said. “He actually is able to achieve results, and this is a very hard field in which to do that.”

A New Sheriff in Town

While he’s only been on the job for two years, Khan has shaken things up at the prosecutor’s office. “I think we needed a bit of a swing on the pendulum to another direction,” said a former staffer who left shortly after Khan arrived for reasons unrelated to him. “It felt like things had become a little complacent.”

But Khan’s dogged courtroom demeanor has carried into the workplace, where he has developed a reputation as a tough, demanding boss who shuts out critical perspectives. “The governance model has changed into something completely vertical,” one person with knowledge of the dynamics said, “with no checks and balances internally.”

The prosecutor quickly restructured the office, sidelining some of the prosecutors who had been there for years and pushing others who had enjoyed close access to his predecessor to leave. He ordered investigators to move to the field, a request that some viewed as a tacit way to pressure people to resign. He also fired a staff member who had an informal conversation with representatives of a state without seeking prior authorization. Several people saw the firing as a disproportionate, retaliatory gesture contributing to a culture of fear at the office. That person, who is formally challenging the dismissal, did not respond to a request for comment. The prosecutor’s spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Intercept that “any personnel decisions by the Prosecutor are made in strict adherence to the applicable codes, policies, and procedures regulating human resources matters of the ICC.”

Khan also brought in an outside team to investigate sexual harassment allegations against a dozen current and former members of the office, an issue that four people told The Intercept his predecessor had been slow to address. Some of those under investigation were encouraged to leave before the end of the probe, according to an internal report.

“Karim doesn’t need new friends.”

Khan’s tenure has also been characterized by a sometimes tense relationship with human rights groups and international nongovernmental organizations — many of which worked closely with his predecessor. Some NGOs, for instance, have pressed Khan to seize on the power of his office, the way Bensouda did, to issue preventative statements of concern about various ongoing human rights abuses, warning perpetrators that their actions may fall under the court’s jurisdiction. Khan has resisted those calls. “The Prosecutor considers that the work of the Office should be focused on delivering results in investigations and, ultimately, through successful prosecutions in the courtroom,” his spokesperson wrote to The Intercept.

Khan also recently issued guidelines for civil society groups documenting crimes that signal a departure from the office’s historic relationship with such organizations, which Rapp described as “the engine of the criminal justice system worldwide.”

In the guidelines, Khan and his co-author praised civil society groups’ documentation work, before warning that some of that work has “the potential to be harmful or prejudicial to criminal accountability efforts.” They continued: “Civil society organisations cannot replace or substitute the actions of competent investigative authorities.”

The prosecutor’s tone was viewed in the civil society space as an effort to further distance his office from those at the front lines of war crimes documentation. Yet it was consistent with Khan’s resolve to maintain his independence, even as it has earned him a number of detractors. “Karim doesn’t need new friends,” said Werner, who is close to Khan. “From his perspective he may be thinking, ‘You want me to independent? Well, I’m going to be independent from everyone — from the states and from the NGOs.’”

Afghan Shiite mourners and relatives weep during the burial ceremony for the one of the 41 victims of a bomb attack on a Shiite cultural center in Kabul on December 29, 2017. - Mourners wept December 29 as they buried loved ones killed in a suicide attack on Shiites in Kabul, the latest victims in one of the bloodiest years for civilians on record in the war-torn country. Multiple blasts at a pro-Iran Shiite cultural centre in the Afghan capital on Thursday left more than 40 people dead and dozens more wounded in the brutal attack claimed by the Islamic State group. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Afghans mourn during the burial ceremony for more than 40 victims of a an Islamic State suicide bomb attack on a Shiite cultural center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 29, 2017.

Photo: Wail Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Politics and Priorities

Khan’s resolve to turn around the ICC’s losing streak has inevitably come up against the court’s limited resources. With a budget of some $170 million a year to pursue probes in 17 different countries, Khan has shaken up the office’s docket. He closed two of the investigations opened by his predecessor, in Georgia and the Central African Republic — the first time the office had closed active investigations in the court’s history. And in one of his most controversial decisions to date, he announced six months into his tenure that he would “deprioritise” an investigation of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, focusing exclusively on crimes committed by the Taliban and the Islamic State group’s affiliate there.


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As The Intercept reported at the time, the decision to stop investigating crimes committed by U.S. forces and the former Afghan government followed a yearslong effort to kill the probe by the U.S., which has long obstructed the ICC’s work. While Khan presented the decision as a matter of necessity, citing the court’s limited resources, the fact that the announcement came within a few months of his election — with U.S. support — prompted criticisms and questions about his independence.

“The fact that we learned about the de-prioritization from a press release I think encapsulates so much about his approach to victims.”

For some advocates representing Afghan victims, the way the de-prioritization was announced was also indicative of Khan’s desire to keep victims at an arm’s length. “The fact that we learned about the de-prioritization from a press release I think encapsulates so much about his approach to victims,” said Katherine Gallagher, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has represented victims of U.S. torture before the ICC. “He’ll go to the field and have a press release showing him with victims, but it can feel like a very paternalistic instrumentalizing of victims.”

The U.S. government has long held a hostile stance toward the ICC, at first fighting to restrict its mandate and later fiercely opposing investigations into itself and its allies. In 2002, one month after the court began operating, Congress passed legislation, quickly dubbed “The Hague Invasion Act,” which authorized the use of military force to liberate U.S. citizens or allies being held by the court. At the height of hostilities, under the Trump administration, the U.S. government sanctioned former ICC prosecutor Bensouda and another prosecutor — an unprecedented move against officials of an international body. President Joe Biden revoked those sanctions in 2021.

Since he came into office, Khan has sought to restore the court’s relationship with the U.S., including by recently welcoming a congressional delegation to The Hague.

“What we’re seeing with the current prosecutor is that the U.S. certainly has a greater role if not in defining the agenda, at least in furthering and shaping it,” said Gallagher.


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So far, Khan’s case priorities have fallen in line with the foreign policy priorities of major global powers. While the prosecutor moved quickly to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine, for instance, he has done little to advance an investigation in Palestine, opened by his predecessor in 2021 and strenuously opposed by the U.S. and Israel, neither of which are ICC members. Though Khan has indicated that he hopes to “visit Palestine,” the investigation is minimally staffed and has largely stalled, according to people familiar with it.

In Khan’s effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the court, he has focused on the cases he can win or that enjoy broad political support. Evaluating a case’s prosecutorial viability involves considerations about the likelihood a suspect can be apprehended and brought to trial, which in turn requires assessing the political landscape and countries’ willingness to cooperate with the court. In Afghanistan, for instance, the prosecutor might currently prioritize cases against the Islamic State because the Taliban government, which is also battling the group, may be willing to aid in efforts to prosecute its members — even if that means crimes by the Taliban themselves are not pursued at this point.

“An international prosecutor cannot just sit there and wish the powers they don’t have,” said Gosnell. “You have to take into account what is realistic, what is practical. … You don’t achieve results by announcing grandiose plans and investigations that cannot yield a case.”

While agreeing that prioritization is both difficult and essential, Khan’s critics inside and outside the office have taken issue with the lack of transparency around those decisions. “The question is, on what basis to do that prioritization, and that’s what people have been critical of,” said Rapp. “It needs to be done in a transparent way in which one explains to the victims and survivors the basis for doing it.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan visit a mass grave on the grounds of the Church of Saint Andrew in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 13, 2022.

Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Prosecuting Putin

While neither Ukraine nor Russia are members of the court, the Ukrainian government gave the ICC jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed there after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Days into last year’s full-scale invasion, Khan launched a new probe into war crimes committed in the ongoing conflict; he was one of the first senior international officials to visit Ukraine, and he successfully lobbied states to pledge millions in funding for the court’s work there. He tapped Brenda Hollis, an American attorney with a reputation as an “iron lady,” to lead the case.

Ukraine presented a unique set of circumstances for the prosecutor: an ongoing conflict in a country where the court was already active, in Europe, and where mass atrocities were being documented at an unprecedented level and investigated real-time by a host of human rights groups, international institutions, and local prosecutors. It was also a conflict that captured the world’s attention in a way many equally horrific ones had not, and that united much of the international community in condemning Russia’s actions. Against that backdrop, Khan seized the moment.

“It was a brilliant move to go to the top — it sent exactly the right signal,” said Werner. Referring to Hollis, he added, “You now have two of the most experienced and hardworking prosecutors you could ever dream of. And of course one is American and one is English, but I mean, the truth is that these two know how to prosecute efficiently defendants at the highest possible level.”

Whether Khan’s arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova can yield a trial remains to be determined — though it’s highly unlikely anytime soon. The Kremlin responded to the warrants by stating it would consider any arrest attempt a “declaration of war.” It’s also uncertain whether some countries would be willing to comply with the warrant should Putin choose to travel internationally. In an interview with CNN, Khan was vague about the prospects of seeing Putin in The Hague.

“Our job is to independently and impartially, without any political motivations or agendas, apply the law to the facts,” he said. “Now it’s for others to decide whether or not arrest opportunities are available and if so, to enforce them.”

“If they choose to ignore it, it really waters down the significance of the court.”

While Khan’s decision to target Putin earned him the praise of many states, including significant donors to the court, some officials have also quietly worried about what would happen in the event of a negotiated end to the conflict. “If there’s an effort to normalize relationships with Russia, especially by European countries, they’re going to be faced now with the very, very difficult circumstance of either having to arrest a head of state or ignore the validity of an arrest warrant,” the former attorney with the prosecutor’s office said. “And if they choose to ignore it, it really waters down the significance of the court.”

While the future of prosecuting Putin is uncertain, the effort raises questions about if and how Khan will build upon the momentum the Ukraine war has given to the ICC to push for accountability in other scenarios.

In Khan’s first speech after he was elected prosecutor, he described his view on what it would take to be successful in the role. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Khan said at the time. “We have to perform in trial. We cannot invest so much, we cannot raise expectations so high and achieve so little, so often in the courtroom.”

The former attorney from the prosecutor’s office pointed to that speech and said, “Right now, we’re still waiting for the proof. The proof is not issuing an arrest warrant; the proof is whether you’re actually able to bring trials, and bring solid cases, and convict people.”

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