JERUSALEM, June 26 (JTA) — Israeli officials are applauding the decision by a Belgian appeals court this week not to try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for alleged war crimes. The case involved a “lawsuit that started with more politics than law, and it is lucky that the outcome is more law than politics,” the director of European Affairs for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Daniel Shek, said after Wednesday’s decision. “We trusted the system, and the system did not let us down.” His comments came after the appeals court threw out a lawsuit that sought to have Sharon tried for war crimes. The three-member panel ruled that Belgian law requires that a defendant be in Belgium for a case to proceed. Belgium has a 1993 law on “universal jurisdiction,” which enables Belgian courts to judge atrocities committed elsewhere, regardless of whether or not they involved Belgians. Just the same, “crimes committed in another country cannot be prosecuted in Belgium unless the author or presumed author has been found in Belgium,” a court spokesman said Wednesday. Now that the case has been thrown out, Sharon can visit Belgium, lawyers said. The ruling dealt with lawsuits filed by Palestinians and Lebanese accusing Sharon of responsibility for the 1982 massacre in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which was carried out by Lebanese Christian militias allied with Israel. Sharon was, at the time, Israel’s defense minister. An Israeli inquiry later found that Sharon bore indirect responsibility because he failed to anticipate the massacre, and he was forced to step down. Last September, Belgian prosecutors suspended a criminal investigation of Sharon pending a ruling on Belgium’s jurisdiction. The Israeli lawyers representing Sharon welcomed Wednesday’s decision, which they said extended to other Israelis named in the complaint. “This is what we wanted,” Irit Kahan, head of the Justice Ministry’s international department, told Israel Radio. The lawsuit had also named other Israelis who held senior military positions at the time of the massacre, including Amos Yaron, who is currently director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry. In February, the International Court ruled that Belgium cannot prosecute former and current world leaders because they have diplomatic immunity. That ruling came as a result of a warrant Belgium issued for a former foreign minister of the Congo, but it had wider applicability, particularly in the case of Sharon. Israeli lawyers, however, were happy that the Belgian appeals court did not go this route when it issued its ruling Wednesday. “We said immunity just for a sitting prime minister does not solve the problem, because once he stops being prime minister he could be tried again,” Kahan said. “And there are other defendants as well.” Lawyers for the Palestinians and Lebanese who brought the lawsuit said they plan to appeal to Belgium’s Supreme Court. “We are not satisfied with this, not at all,” The Associated Press quoted attorney Michael Verhaeghe as saying. “This completely undermines universal jurisdiction. We cannot accept the verdict.”
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Naomi Segal is a contributing writer to JTA.
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