Belgian court rejects appeal to try Sharon

Thursday, February 13, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The Belgian Supreme Court rejected an attempt Wednesday by Palestinians to bring Ariel Sharon to trial for war crimes for massacres in two refugee camps in 1982, but didn't rule out trying the Israeli prime minister after he leaves office.

The Palestinians were seeking to try Sharon and retired Gen. Amos Yaron for their alleged roles in the massacres at the Sabra and Chatilla camps south of Beirut, using a Belgian law that allows the country's courts to hear cases of war crimes committed anywhere in the world.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily and recalled the Israeli ambassador in Brussels for consultations.

"Belgium is helping to harm not only Israel but also the entire free world, and Israel will respond with severity to this," Netanyahu said in a statement.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres said "Belgium cannot be the judge of Israel. It did not experience what we have experienced, and it must not place itself on a perch above the nations of the world as a judge of all history."

A lower court dismissed the case against Sharon last June, saying the Israeli leader could not be tried for war crimes because he did not live in Belgium and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

The court upheld Sharon's immunity Wednesday but did not rule out any future case against the Israeli premier once he retires.

It also ordered that Yaron's case be sent back to a lower court which would decide whether there was enough evidence to proceed with war crimes charges against the former general.

If a judge decides to press charges, Yaron could technically be arrested to stand trial if he enters Belgium.

Sharon was Israeli defense minister when hundreds of Palestinian civilians were slaughtered in the two camps by a Lebanese Christian militia allied to the Israelis. An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible and forced him to resign as defense minister in 1983.

The panel also said Yaron "did not properly evaluate and failed to check" reports about the massacre. It recommended he be barred from a field command for three years. He was later promoted to major general and appointed chief of manpower. He also served as military attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington in the late 1980s.

Chibli Mallat, a lawyer for the group of Palestinian victims, said he was disappointed with the ruling on Sharon, but happy the case against Yaron could proceed.

"It is a landmark step for international law," he said.

Belgian prosecutors opened an inquiry in July 2001 following a complaint filed by 23 survivors of the massacres.

Reed Brody, a Human Rights Watch lawyer in New York, called it "an important victory for atrocity victims" who put hopes in the Belgian law.

"Today's decision will allow Belgian courts to pursue perpetrators of the worst crimes even if they did not happen on Belgian soil," he said.

So far, four Rwandans have been sentenced up to 20 years under the war crimes law for their role in the 1994 genocide of the country's Tutsi ethnic minority.

Complaints have also been filed against a range of international figures, including Saddam Hussein, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

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