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DePaul’s M. Cherif Bassiouni, global ‘champion of justice,’ dead at 79

M. Cherif Bassiouni, an international lawyer and investigator of human rights abuses, torture and war crimes, with then-President Barack Obama. | Provided photo

M. Cherif Bassiouni was a champion of human rights who fought torture, war crimes and genocide around the globe.

A longtime DePaul University law professor, Mr. Bassiouni died Monday at his Streeterville home. He was 79 and had multiple myeloma.

Over the years, he held 22 United Nations appointments, and he assisted on the Camp David peace accords, according to Daniel Swift, a lawyer who worked with him.

Benjamin Ferencz, who at 98 is the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg war crimes trials, said Monday that Mr. Bassiouni “was a real contributor to international criminal law and the rule of law to protect human rights.”

Bianca Jagger, founder and president of the London-based Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, called Mr. Bassiouni “a champion of justice.

“Cherif Bassiouni was one of the most courageous, knowledgeable and determined people I have ever met . . . someone who went after and investigated what happened in Bosnia and Srebrenica,” Jagger said.

In Bosnia, Mr. Bassiouni worked on a “monumental effort that documented mass killings, human rights abuses. . . . and resulted in the prosecution of hundreds including” Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, said Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago.

M. Cherif Bassiouni in August 2013. | Sun-Times files

In a 1999 Chicago Sun-Times interview, he said he thought his work contributed to a 1995 heart attack. For two years, he spent two weeks out of each month at a U.N. field office in Geneva and a week conducting field operations in the former Yugoslavia. His team identified 151 mass graves.

“Emotionally, it was devastating,” he said, “especially as a result of the interviews that we conducted with the rape victims.”

Born in Cairo, he was the son of Ibrahim Bassiouni, an Egyptian diplomat to India. His grandfather, Mahmoud Ibrahim Bassiouni, helped lead the 1919 revolt against British rule, according to Swift. Mr. Bassiouni served in the Egyptian army in the 1956 Suez War.

He was educated at the University of Cairo, received a law degree from Indiana University, did further legal studies at John Marshall Law School and got a doctorate of law from George Washington University. He was a founding member of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul, where he started in 1964.

A note slipped to M. Cherif Bassiouni in 2005 by a Pakistani prisoner in an Afghan prison shows the gravity of his work. | Facebook

In 1972, he helped found the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in Italy. “His vision of international justice inspired students and teachers throughout the world,” Ferencz said.

Though serious, Mr. Bassiouni showed a lighter side in Siracusa when he faced off against other professors and students in a badminton game. Mr. Bassiouni’s team kept winning, Ferencz said, because “he brought in some ringers from the Chicago Police Department.”

He was a consultant to the State Department on the American hostages held captive by Iran in 1979 and 1980.

He is survived by his wife Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni, stepdaughter Lisa Capitanini and two grandchildren. A public memorial is being planned, Swift said.

Ferencz held Mr. Bassiouni in such high esteem that he bestowed on him a medal which once belonged to Vespasian Pella, Romanian ambassador to the League of Nations who in the 1930s called for an international court for criminal cases.

“When Pella died, I was still in Europe working on the Nuremberg trials and compensation for the victims,” Ferencz said, “and I visited his widow, and she gave me a medal” belonging to Pella. “I accepted it, but when Cherif ended his tenure at the International Association of Penal Law, I flew down to Budapest and gave him the medal.”

“I said, ‘Let the one who has done the most for international law have this medal.’ ”

M. Cherif Bassiouni, left, with then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. | Facebook


(c) 2017 The Chicago Sun-Times

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