Israeli spy chief 'threatened' ICC prosecutor to drop war crimes probe

Israeli spy chief 'threatened' ICC prosecutor to drop war crimes probe
The former head of Mossad allegedly threatened and ambushed Fati Bensouda, while actively seeking compromising information about her and her family.
4 min read
28 May, 2024
Fatou Bensouda was "threatened" by Mossad ex-chief Yossi Cohen over her investigation of war crimes in Palestine [Getty]

The former head of Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, allegedly threatened a chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) during a series of meetings, attempting to pressure her into abandoning a war crimes investigation.

According to the Guardian, Cohen’s meetings with Gambian prosecutor Fatou Bensouda took place following her decision to open a formal investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The investigation was first launched in 2021 and concluded last week. However, it was taken up again by Karim Khan, the current ICC prosecutor, who is seeking an arrest warrant for the Israeli prime minister, Israel's defence minister and several Hamas leaders.

An Israeli source briefed on the Bensouda case said Mossad's objective was to compromise the prosecutor or enlist her as someone who would cooperate with Israel’s demands.

Four sources confirmed that Bensouda had spoken out about her concerns, amid Cohen's increasing "persistence" and the "threatening nature of his behaviour", adding he pressured her on several occasions not to proceed with the criminal investigation.

Accounts shared with ICC officials state he allegedly told her: "You don’t want to be getting into things that could compromise your security or that of your family."

Other sources briefed on Cohen’s actions said he used "despicable tactics", likening his behaviour to "stalking" and taking particular interest in her family members, as well as obtaining transcripts of secret recordings of her husband. The sources, who had direct knowledge of the situation, attempted to use the material to discredit the prosecutor.

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In response to a request for comment by The Guardian, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the questions sent to them were "replete with many false and unfounded allegations meant to hurt the state of Israel".

Cohen’s efforts to pressure Bensouda were also supported by Joseph Kabila, the former president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Legal experts and former ICC officials believe the pressure on Bensouda could amount to offences against the administration of justice under Article 70 of the Rome statute.

The ICC case Bensouda was working on dates back to 2015 and was based on a preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine. Her inquiry was also tasked with making an initial assessment of crimes by individuals in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Her actions triggered widespread anger in Israel, raising concerns that its citizens could be prosecuted for their involvement in operations and attacks in Palestinian territories.

The revelations about the pressure on Bensouda come as Khan warned in recent days that he would not hesitate to prosecute any attempts to "impede, intimidate or improperly influence" ICC officials.

"Ambushed" and threatened

Cohen’s first meeting with Bensouda took place at the Munich security conference in 2017, they later met again in a Manhattan hotel suite where he "ambushed" her, multiple sources said.

In 2018, Bensouda was on an official visit to New York where she met with Kabila. During the meeting, her staff were asked to leave the room and Cohen entered, sparking her to alert ICC officials.

Following this, Cohen also repeatedly phoned Bensouda and tried to arrange meetings with her. Initially, sources say, he tried to "charm her" by building a good relationship and persuading her to cooperate with Israel.

However, over time, his manner changed, and he resorted to "threats and manipulation".

Between late 2019 and early 2021, the sources said there were at least three more encounters between Cohen and Bensouda, all of them initiated by the spy chief, where he raised questions about her and her family’s security.

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The sources added that Cohen is said to have shown Bensouda copies of photographs of her husband, which were taken covertly during a trip to London, and he also suggested that her opening a full investigation would be detrimental to her career.

Mossad actively sought compromising information about the prosecutor and paid closer attention to her family members between 2019 and 2020. This was followed by the Trump administration imposing visa restrictions and sanctions on the chief prosecutor.

Bensouda completed her nine-year term at the ICC in 2021, leaving Khan to take up the investigation, which has made headlines again following Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza.