Belgian court rules Sharon can be tried for war crimes

13 February 2003
Belgium's highest appeals court on 12 February ruled that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be indicted for war crimes, but only after he leaves office. Israel reacted by withdrawing its ambassador 'for consultations'. Defence Ministry director-general Amos Yaron can also be tried. The case was brought by 23 Palestinians who survived a massacre by Israeli troops in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shantila in 1982, while Sharon was Israeli Defence Minister and Yaron was commander of Israeli forces in Beirut. The Palestinians are bringing the suit under Belgium's 'universal jurisdiction' law, which allows prosecution of war criminals wherever their crimes were committed. A lower Belgian court ruled last year that the law could not be used to indict the Israeli premier because he was not currently in Belgium, but the government subsequently amended the legislation. Sharon was earlier held indirectly responsible for the killing of between 800 and 2,000 refugees at the two camps by an Israeli investigation and forced to resign, but never faced any criminal charges. He has expressed 'regret' but denied responsibility.

Israel accused the Supreme Court of making a political ruling: Irit Kahan, who represented Israel at the hearing, told army radio on 13 February that discussions in the court frequently strayed from judicial to political matters. Israeli President Moshe Katsav has written to King Albert II of Belgium criticising the decision and claimed that Israeli troops in Lebanon acted 'according to international norms and the laws of conscience and human morals'. Incumbent Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement calling the ruling: 'a scandalous decision, which legitimises terror and harms those who fight it. Belgium is helping to harm not only Israel but also the entire free world, and Israel will respond with severity to this,' he warned.

Other world figures against whom cases are pending under Belgium's universal jurisdiction law include Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

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