International tribunals acquit accused individuals when judges at the moment of coming to a decision are not ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ convinced that the accused has committed the crimes the prosecution seeks to hold him/her accountable for. Acquittals in international criminal justice typically take place when the prosecution does not succeed in presenting convincing evidence which links high level politicians or military leaders to (alleged) crimes committed on the ground.
An acquittal does not mean that the accused has not been responsible for any (other) crimes. Neither, however, does an acquittal mean that the accused must have somehow been involved in the crimes committed because (s)he had been indicted. In other words: a person acquitted by international tribunals is, as any other individual, innocent of any international crimes until proven guilty.
When defendants are acquitted they are no longer under the full auspices of the international criminal tribunals. Where persons have been acquitted and all proceedings have been finalized, the Tribunals are obliged to release them from their detention facilities. The Registrar is responsible to make the necessary diplomatic, logistical and physical arrangements for such release; taking into consideration, to the extent possible and as appropriate, the requests of the acquitted persons.
Most ICTY acquitted face relatively few problems. Bosnians, Croats, Kosovars, or Serbs can typically easily return to any of the newly established republics.
ICTR acquitted, on the other hand, often face much more difficulties after an acquittal. Fearing persecution, further prosecution or discrimination upon their return in Rwanda, they do not want to go back to their country of origin.
After a protracted process involving bilateral negotiations and court proceedings, the ICTR Registrar has over the past years successfully relocated five ICTR defendants. They have been reunited with family members and have been living as free men in Western European countries. There is, however, no legal duty for States to cooperate in the relocation of acquitted persons. And if states do not cooperate in relocating the acquitted, the burden of dealing with the acquitted in practice falls on the shoulders of the ICTR Registry, which bears the responsibility for the well-being, safety and security of acquitted persons.
Rwandan acquitted who cannot find a third country willing to receive them are forced to live in an ICTR paid for ‘safe house’ in Arusha, Tanzania. This safe house is to a certain extent a ‘golden cage’. Conditions are relatively good: the safe house is a villa like, two-story high building just outside central Arusha. It has a great view on beautiful Mount Meru and a nice veranda with a little terrace on it and two home trainers. The safe house residents have access to the Internet, phones and phone credit, television, access to language classes and the library at the ICTR and transportation.
At the same time, however, the acquitted men are subject to many limitations. They have no official legal status in Tanzania and are merely ‘condoned’ by the government.
They therefore have a limited freedom of movement and can hardly leave Arusha. The men are not allowed to work, cannot visit family members and cannot - because they have no financial means - pay for family members to come over. Legal representation is not provided anymore and they basically depend on the benevolence of individual states to at some moment in time accept them. If states ever will is unclear: the UN Security Council has, in vain, numerous times requested states’ assistance in relocating the acquitted.
Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Netherlands appear not to have a clear policy on how to deal with acquitted individuals who cannot return, only future can tell what will happen in those instances.