BRUSSELS (Apr. 14)
Belgian Jews are breathing a sigh of relief after the country revised a controversial law that allowed Belgian courts to try foreigners for alleged crimes against humanity.
“Belgium has come to its senses. It has realized that its position was becoming awkward because of international reactions to this law,” said Julien Klener of the Consistoire Central Israelite de Belgique, the official body representing Jews. “Let’s hope that the negative criticism Belgium is facing will calm down.”
The amendments to the law, passed April 5, bring an end to the lawsuit filed against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by a group of Palestinians over his alleged role in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The law, which aims to prosecute war crimes and genocide wherever they occur, remains unique for its principle of “universal jurisdiction.” That extends the reach of Belgian courts to complaints against people with no direct link to the country.
The recent changes, however, will allow the judiciary to reject complaints in which there are no victims of Belgian nationality or in which the plaintiffs have lived in Belgium for less than three years.
The government also will be able to reject cases in which the accused comes from a democratic country where he or she can receive a serious trial.
High-profile cases were becoming increasingly embarrassing to Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s government. The Sharon case, for example, soured relations between Belgium and Israel and even led to the recall of the Israeli ambassador.
The final straw came last month when a group of Iraqis used the law to file a complaint against the first President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, accusing them of war crimes during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The lawsuit infuriated the current Bush administration and woke Belgian lawmakers to the dangers of the law.
But Belgian Jews are especially relieved by the dismissal of the case against Sharon.
On the one hand, Belgian Jews were concerned by the deterioration of relations between Israel and Belgium. On the other, they wanted to ensure that the law did not strain their dialogue with Belgian authorities.
“The crisis in the Middle East creates so much confusion in this country already that we do not want to mix things up even more,” said Michele Szwarcburt, president of the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, the secular Jewish community in Brussels.
Szwarcburt said she believes that the law is misunderstood.
“It stems from a generous feeling to fight war crimes,” she explained. “But it is unjust to try Sharon. Israel is a democratic country and can try its own nationals. This law would be perfectly acceptable if it were only applied to non-democratic states.”
Belgian Jewish officials said they believed they had made a difference on the issue.
“Our role here is to ease tensions that have risen between Belgium and the State of Israel,” said Philippe Markiewicz, head of the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations.
“But we have absolutely no problem with the authorities,” he insisted. “Belgium’s international role on the political stage has been saved.”
Israel has said that it will return its ambassador, Yehudi Kinar, after Passover.
Kinar was recalled to Jerusalem last February after Belgium’s Supreme Court declined to invalidate the law, leaving the door open for Sharon to be prosecuted when he leaves office and loses his diplomatic immunity.