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Belgian Court Dismisses Sharon War Crimes Suit

26 June 2002

A Brussels appeals court threw out a lawsuit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday, ruling he was immune from investigation in Belgium over his alleged role in a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees.

"What the court decided is that the complaint against Sharon ... is not admissible because of the principle of Belgian law that crimes committed in other countries cannot be prosecuted in Belgium unless the author or presumed author has been found in Belgium," a court spokesman said.

The ruling deals a major blow to Belgium's law giving the country's courts the right to try foreigners for serious human rights abuses wherever they are committed.It was under this controversial law that a group of Palestinian and Lebanese filed the complaint last year, accusing Sharon of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Michael Verhaeghe, one of the lawyers for the group of Palestinians, told reporters that his clients would appeal to the country's Supreme Court of Appeal.

"We are not satisfied with this," he said. "It completely undermines the scope of universal jurisdiction. We are appealing to the Supreme Court. The fight goes on, that's clear."

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees read the ruling as a sign that Europe had joined the United States in backing Israel in its conflict with Palestinians, and that they could expect no justice in its courts.

"There were already steps to head off the court proceedings, but they let them go on to display a sort of fraudulent democracy," said Hussein al-Jamal, a 42-year-old resident of the Rashidiyeh camp in south Lebanon.

"More law than politics"

But there was jubilation among Sharon's backers when, after a nail-biting delay of nearly two hours, photocopies of the 22-page ruling were distributed from a dusty room on the corner of Brussels' Palais de Justice.

"It's a lawsuit that started with more politics than law and it is lucky that the outcome is more law than politics," Daniel Shek, director of European Affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told reporters at the court. "It's what we considered a logical outcome, we trusted the system and the system did not let us down."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters: "I think they shouldn't even have tried to (bring the case to court). One nation cannot judge another nation. A nation that doesn't, fortunately, have to fight terror and war will hardly understand a nation that has to do it."

Sharon was defense minister in 1982 when an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia killed hundreds of refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut, then occupied by Israel. The following year, an Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible.

A criminal investigation was suspended last September pending a ruling on Belgium's jurisdiction.

Two previous rulings had already chipped away at the validity of the law, which has caused embarrassment for the Belgian government and strained its ties with Israel.

In February, the International Court of Justice at the Hague snubbed Belgian claims of universal jurisdiction by upholding the immunity of former Congolese Foreign Minister Yerodia Aboulaye Ndombasi from prosecution in Belgium.

The decision resulted in an order to cancel Belgium's international arrest warrant against him, issued in 2000, for crimes against humanity.

In an another precedent-setting ruling two months later, the Brussels appeals court threw out a case against Yerodia, who was accused of inciting racial hatred, on the grounds that he had not been found in Belgium.

Catastrophe scenario

It was on this ground of links between the accused and Belgium - and not diplomatic immunity - that the investigation into Sharon was halted by the appeals court Wednesday.

"This decision is a great disappointment not only to the victims of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila but to atrocity victims everywhere who have placed their hopes for justice in the Belgian courts," said Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.

Montserrat Carreras of rights group Amnesty International, pointing out that if the case had been thrown out on immunity grounds it could have been taken up again when Sharon left office, said Wednesday's ruling was "the catastrophe scenario."

Lawyer Verhaeghe said his clients' case in the Supreme Court of Appeal would now hang on whether it could be proved that Sharon was in Belgium in 1987. Two liberal Belgian senators said they would introduce a bill in the senate for a change in the law to ensure that people who are not in Belgium can be prosecuted.

"The bill is ready. It is just a matter of days," senator Vincent Van Quickenborne, a Flemish liberal, said.

Katie Nguyen
Published by Reuters © 2002 Reuters Ltd

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