Updated 

Kona attorney returns after six years prosecuting international war criminals


In 2007, Hawaii County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Cynthia Tai applied online for a job posting with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“I applied blind,” Tai said this week.

Tai had been prosecuting felonies on the Big Island for about a decade. She said she was approaching a milestone birthday and trying to decide whether she wanted to stay here or move on. A frequent traveler, she was also looking for something that would allow her to see more of the world. One of Tai’s friends, who had become a “career counselor for lawyers” suggested looking into international tribunals, which led Tai to the ICC job posting for a prosecuting attorney.

“I met with the prosecutor,” Tai said. “He point-blank said, ‘You’re from Hawaii. Why would you want to move to Holland? I told him ‘You’re not going to come to Hawaii.’”

She sold him on her abilities as a prosecutor and said while she didn’t know about the court’s governing rules, known as the Rome Statute, she could learn those.

“I know how to do this stuff,” Tai said she told the prosecutor. “I can win.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that she would become only the second American to work for the court as a prosecutor, nor that the average tenure for attorneys with the court was two years. Tai stayed six.

She started on the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician who aided the Central African Republic’s president following a coup d’etat. Bemba’s troops murdered and raped in the occupied areas in the Central African Republic. More recently, she was the team leader, senior prosecuting attorney, in the cases against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and Kenyan official Joseph Sang. That prosecution continues.

American attorneys bring trial court experience that attorneys in civil law countries don’t often have, Tai said. Because the United States is not a participating member of the ICC, the court doesn’t typically have a large number of Americans, particularly in the trial attorney role. Though prosecutors there would usually allow their investigators to complete most of the interviews with witnesses, Tai said she approached the work differently.

“I took a really American approach,” she said. “I wanted to be there. I participated in a lot of interviews.”

Often, the witnesses to the crimes needed to be moved from their home regions to safer areas, places friendlier to the ICC staff. Doing so meant Tai and her investigators usually only had one chance to conduct their interviews. Tai said she participated in the process so she could ensure her team got all the information they needed from the witnesses.

The work called for long days — sometimes 16 hours — and weekend travel to meet with witnesses, Tai said. After six years, she was ready for a break and, fortuitously, got a call from her old boss at the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Tai returned to Hawaii and started working for the office this week.

She returns, she said, with better writing skills, because much of the argument ICC prosecutors make before its three-judge panel is done on paper, not in oral argument like in American courts. She said she also developed a more creative approach to arguing the law.

“At the ICC, every issue or logistical challenge was new because we deal with different cultures, countries, and therefore different fact patterns,” Tai said. “We honed our ability to always ask ‘why,’ identify avenues to achieve our investigative goals, and create the best legal arguments possible. It was not an option to fail. Our challenge was to look for every way to succeed, and execute perfectly.”

Tai said her colleagues viewed Americans working at the court as natural leaders and extremely hard workers. She was surprised by how much they knew about some parts of American history, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Members on Tai’s mother’s side of the family were among those interned.

“I found it interesting that they knew so much more than the average American, and most attributed my passions for international justice to my family’s history,” she said.

Over the years, she has spoken to local schools, including Innovations Public Charter School, as well as college students at several universities. To those students, and to her friends and acquaintances who express their admiration for the level of success she reached, Tai often responds with a question: “What about you?”

“You can do the same thing,” she said. “You have to believe that you can. I did live out my dream. I did what I wanted to do.”