BELGIUM’S highest court has delivered a landmark ruling that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be prosecuted for war crimes - but only after he leaves office.
Israel responded angrily to what one official called a “scandalous” decision, immediately recalling its ambassador to Brussels for consultations and summoning the Belgian envoy for a dressing-down.
The move by the Cour de Cassation, the top appeal court, opens the way for several serving or ex-leaders around the world to be tried under a unique Belgian law that allows for war crimes prosecutions independently of where the offences took place.
The court ruled that “international custom does not allow heads of government to be the subject of legal action in a foreign state”.
But it overturned a ruling made in June 2002 by a lower court, which said that Belgium’s “universal competence” law only applied if the alleged perpetrator was in Belgium.
The lower court’s ruling halted one of the most high-profile suits brought under the law - one filed against Sharon by 23 Palestinian survivors of a refugee camp massacre in Lebanon in 1982.
Today’s ruling clears the way for Sharon to be tried once he ceases to be prime minister, regardless of whether he is in Belgium or not.
It also enables a war crimes trial of Israeli General Amos Yaron, who oversaw the Beirut sector in 1982.
The unique “universal competence” law, adopted in 1993, enables Belgian courts to try cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide regardless of where the incidents occurred.
It has attracted numerous lawsuits brought by victims of alleged atrocities who may one day seek recourse in the fledgling International Criminal Court.
Israeli public television quoted an official as calling the Belgian court decision “scandalous” and warning that it threatened to open a serious crisis between the two countries.
Ambassador Yehudi Kenar had been “called to Jerusalem for consultations”, a foreign ministry spokesman said, adding that the Belgian ambassador to Israel, Wilfred Geens, had also been ordered to appear at the foreign ministry.
The massacre, in which up to 2000 Palestinian refugees were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, was carried out by an Israeli-allied Christian militia during Israel’s war against Lebanon.
An Israeli tribunal in 1983 found Sharon, who was defence minister at the time, to be indirectly responsible for the carnage. Sharon was forced to resign.
One of the lawyers for the Palestinian survivors, Chibli Mallat, was delighted that Sharon could eventually stand trial in Belgium.
“It’s one of the most important rulings that there has been in international law,” he said.
Under the Belgian law, four Rwandans were found guilty in 2001 of taking part in the 1994 genocide in their homeland, which left an estimated one million people dead.
But last year’s lower court ruling effectively shelved suits brought under the law against some 30 foreign leaders or ex-leaders, including Sharon, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch hailed the new ruling, which came as a surprise to legal observers in Belgium.
“It’s a huge victory not only for the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres but for all victims of grave crimes who have put their hopes in the Belgian law of universal competence,” said HRW’s Reed Brody.
The Belgian parliament was forced to reinterpret the anti-atrocity law in response to last June’s ruling, and a new version is awaiting the approval of the House of Representatives.
(c) Sunday Times