Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD

Belgium's legal trap for world leaders

BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- The Brussels law courts are an imposing site, dominating part of the city.

It is where the trial of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would take place if prosecutors decide there is enough evidence to take him to court on charges of genocide.

The investigation follows a complaint lodged by 23 Palestinians that Sharon should be prosecuted for alleged crimes against humanity.

It is the first step in a unique Belgian legal practice that could result in the arrest of Sharon in connection with the deaths by Christian militias of Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

Q&A: Belgium's unique law 
Should Belgium have the right to prosecute world leaders for alleged war crimes?

View Results

Belgium is the only country which allows its courts to prosecute anyone in the world for war crimes, wherever they were committed.

Ariel Sharon was Israel's minister of defence at the time of the killings. He is not the only person being investigated under this complaint.

Attorney Luc Walleyn said: "Of course not only Israelis were involved in that. This massacre was executed by Lebanese Phalangists.

"The responsibility of the Israelis is that they discussed the whole matter together with the Phalangist leaders and they decided to ask the Phalangist militia to clean up these camps so during three days the Israeli army was surrounding the camp, was controlling the camp, knew what was happening there and they just let it done because they had the same purpose, to eliminate the Palestinian presence."

In Israel, immediately after the massacre, a national commission of inquiry -- the Kahan committee -- found Sharon indirectly responsible for what happened at Sabra and Shatila.

The committee's report said it was impossible to justify what it described as Sharon's "disregard of the danger of a massacre."

Sharon was forced to resign his post as minister of defence.

Ran Ichay, spokesman, for the Israeli mission said: "You know Israel didn't wait 20 years for a Belgian court.

"This case was investigated in Israel right after the massacre was committed by Lebanese forces in the refugee camps.

"We think the legal aspects of this issue do not exist anymore because they were verified in Israel and re-verified in the United States in '86 in the law suit against the Time magazine."

Sharon successfully sued Time magazine in a New York court for publishing an article claiming Sharon knew in advance the massacre would happen. He received a public apology from the magazine and was paid damages.

First step against Sharon

Nevertheless, a Belgian prosecutor has decided the case against Sharon should go beyond the first step of establishing whether the complaint against him is worth investigating.

The second step would be more an information step, Joannes Thuy, justice ministry spokesman said.

"The prosecutor is gathering information about the person against whom the complaint is brought and about the crimes he has committed or not," Thuy added.

The third step would be arrest and the trial itself.

Thuy was unable to give a timescale for such a possibility, saying it "depended on the length of the current investigation."

"Perhaps it is necessary to send a commission to Israel to investigate several things there."

If Belgium decides to prosecute, Israel's prime minister could find himself the subject of an international arrest warrant within a matter of months.

Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended his prime minister.

He told a Flemish television station following a meeting between himself and Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, last month: "We are fighting for our life. and Sharon was one of the best fighters. So what is their claim? Could they avoid war? Could they prevent it?"

Peres added that he thought a law suit would be bad for Belgium.

"I think it is a terrible mistake, terrible mistake. I am not referring to the legal side, I am referring to the moral side."

The legal case could make it awkward for Belgium, now holding the presidency of the European Union, to push forward peace efforts in the Middle East, something denied by Israel.

Ichay added: "It is a political issue now and there's no way we think it's going to contribute to the European efforts to play a positive role in the Middle East peace process."

Instead, the Belgian parliament is likely to be asked to consider several amendments to the law.

Philippe Mahoux, Belgian socialist senator, said: "It needs reflection, maybe find a formula that allows serving heads of state not impunity but something like temporary immunity while they're serving as head of state, that allows them to be prosecuted when their mandate has expired.

"It's a hypothesis, it's the only one I see. All others would have the effect of altering the fundamental basics of our law and I don't think that's possible."

He added: "I don't think we should change the law's universal jurisdiction. We should ensure its continuity.

"In other words, I think for crimes of this nature wherever they are committed, whatever the nationality of the perpetrator, whatever the nationality of the victims we have to be able to prosecute without regard to territorial limits."

Law in practice

The first case to be tried under Belgium's war crimes law led to the conviction last month of four Rwandans, including two nuns, for their role in the 1994 genocide that left up to 800,000 compatriots dead.

They received sentences of between 12 and 20 years. Plenty more cases are in the pipeline.

Among the complaints lodged in Belgium are some against Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, Iran's former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Chile's former leader General Augusto Pinochet.

The case against the late Congo President Laurent Kabila was dropped when he was assassinated.

Belgian investigators are also looking into allegations against the presidents of Chad, Guatemala and the Ivory Coast.

The foreign minister of Morocco is also on their list. Some government officials say they believe it is only a matter of time before the law is used to lodge complaints against senior U.S. and European politicians.

Belgians want the rest of Europe to follow their lead, but until they do, the law is costing the government dear. Six investigating magistrates are assigned full time, following up on the complaints.

The Rwandan trial cost the state 10 million Belgian francs (more than $200,000) and that doesn't include the cost of keeping those found guilty behind bars.




Back to the top