Amendments to Belgian war crimes law will not affect suit against Sharon, Yaron

Last update - 01:27 27/03/2003

Belgium seeks limits on Universal Authority Law

Amendments designed to protect U.S. officials; won’t affect suit against Sharon
By Sharon Sadeh
LONDON - Belgium plans to impose restrictions on the Universal Authority Law, which facilitates indicting and trying foreigners for crimes against humanity not committed on Belgian soil.

The decision comes in the wake of fears in Brussels that relations with the United States could be harmed following the submission last week of charges of war crimes against Iraqi citizens allegedly committed by former U.S. president George Bush (senior) and other American administration officials (including Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell) in the 1991 Gulf War.

The amendments, however, would not affect the suit against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, since they would refer to charges brought only after July 2002.

The restrictions are currently being discussed in both houses of the Belgian parliament. A vote on them is due to be held before the end of the week; the Belgian parliament will disband next week in anticipation of elections on May 17.

The intention is to include a number of restrictions aimed at stemming the flow of petitions from persons living outside Belgium. The law, adopted in 1993, enables any person anywhere to bring charges against someone suspected of crimes against humanity, without any connection to Belgium itself. However, the amendments would make it possible to recognize the immunity of incumbent prime ministers or other ministers. It would also make it possible for the Belgian courts to turn down plaintiffs who have not resided in Belgium for at least three years.

Persons who are not Belgian residents would have to first submit their charges for perusal to the Federal Advocate General (equivalent to Israel’s State Prosecutor), who would have the right to turn them down according to regulations laid down by the parliament, and to rule whether the plaintiffs’ motives were purely political or spurious.

The Belgian court will also be empowered to transfer certain charges to the new international court. In cases in which democratic countries are involved, the Belgian government would have the authority to turn the case over to the country in which the crimes were purportedly carried out, or in which the suspect lives, provided that country has taken upon itself international legal commitments such as those of Belgium.

The first foreigners tried under the Universal Authority Law were four Rwandans, who were charged with genocide in 2001. Since then, numerous charges have been lodged, including those against Sharon and other national leaders.