By Stephanie van den Berg
THE HAGUE, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Lawyers representing victims of the Afghanistan conflict on Wednesday urged the International Criminal Court to allow a war crimes investigation that would include scrutinizing the actions of U.S. forces.
ICC judges in April rejected the request of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to examine atrocities allegedly committed in the conflict between 2003 and 2004, including by U.S. troops, Afghan forces and the Taliban.
Judges argued that a successful prosection was unlikely.
The prosecution has appealed that decision and is arguing the case in three days of hearings before a panel of appeals judges in The Hague.
Lawyer Fergal Gaynor called the hearings "an historic day for accountability in Afghanistan". The 82 victims he represented were "united" in wanting an investigation, he said.
U.S. forces and other foreign troops intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and overthrew the Taliban government, which had been protecting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In what has become the United States' longest war, about 13,000 U.S. troops remain there.
More than 32,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Later on Wednesday, one of U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyers will address the court.
Counsel Jay Sekulow, who was allowed to file a "friend of the court" brief as an independent expert, said in a statement that he intends to defend the interests of members of the U.S. military "who sacrifice everything to defend us".
Trump has denounced the ICC, the world's only permanent war crimes court, for its "broad, unaccountable, prosecutorial powers". Washington revoked U.S. travel visas for ICC personnel in response to its work on Afghanistan.
Another legal representative of victims, Katherine Gallagher, who acts for two Guantanamo Bay detainees, stressed that so far no high-level U.S. official has been held accountable for alleged violations of the rules of war in Afghanistan or at CIA "black" sites.
"The opening of an investigation into the U.S. torture program would make clear that no one is above the law," she told judges.
Prosecutors have cited preliminary evidence suggesting that international forces in Afghanistan, including employees of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, mentally and physically abused detainees, which could constitute a war crime.
The ICC, which opened in 2002, has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity if they have been committed by nationals of a signatory state or if they took place on the territory of one of its members. Afghanistan is a member, the United States is not.
The ICC is also only empowered to act when a country is found to be unable or unwilling to examine misdeeds by its own military and leaders. It has struggled due to opposition from the United States, Russia and China. (Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Angus MacSwan)