Belgian court considers Sharon war crimes probe

A Belgian court is deciding whether to resume a war crimes investigation against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even though the World Court has ruled that he has immunity as a head of state.

A Belgian court is deciding whether to resume a war crimes investigation against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even though the World Court has ruled that he has immunity as a head of state.

The court was expected to rule today on whether a probe into Sharon by Belgian prosecutors could resume after their investigation was suspended last September.

However, last month’s World Court ruling upholding the immunity of government officials has prompted lawyers for those seeking war crimes charges against Sharon to request a delay.

The lawyers for the 23 survivors of a 1982 massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps are demanding the court hold off on any decision until they introduce new arguments in light of the World Court ruling.

Michael Verhaeghe, a lawyer representing the survivors, said yesterday that it was ‘‘absolutely necessary to have another hearing’’.

’’We are sure the court will accept our request ... that we have a hearing to argue the repercussions,’’ Verhaeghe said.

While court officials in Brussels said a delay was possible, Sharon’s lawyers were expected to tell the appeals court that the case should be thrown out.

Following the February 14 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, on a similar war crimes case, Sharon’s lawyer, Adrien Masset, said he was confident the case against his client would be dropped.

The tribunal ruled illegal an April 2000 international arrest warrant sought by Belgium, which wanted to try Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, then Congo’s foreign minister, in connection with the killing of hundreds of minority Tutsis in 1998.

The court said he cannot be tried in Belgium for allegedly urging the slaughter of Tutsis since he was foreign minister at the time.

The decision dealt a blow to Belgium’s 1993 war crimes law, which enables anyone to bring a war crimes case against any world leader.

About 40 similar claims now before Belgian courts were thrown into question as result.

Besides Sharon, criminal proceedings have also been brought against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran among others.

Verhaeghe has said he would argue to the court that a 1948 international convention on genocide, which Israel signed, supersedes all other international law in the Sharon case.

That would allow the investigation into Sharon’s alleged role in the killings of Palestinian refugees to continue, he said.

’’The United Nations declared the massacre at Sabra and Chatila as an act of genocide,’’ he said.

Any decision it makes will probably be appealed against to Belgium’s supreme court.

Sharon was defence minister when hundreds of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps south of Beirut were slaughtered by a Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel. An Israeli inquiry into the massacre found Sharon indirectly responsible, prompting his resignation.

A Belgian magistrate opened an inquiry into Sharon in July after finding that the complaints warranted investigation.

If the appeals court decides to accept the case, a full investigation leading to a trial will be launched, which could take years.

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