Sharon could stand trial in Belgium
BRUSSELS - 31 Jan: The Belgian Senate ratified two key amendments early Friday aiming to keep alive a ten-year-old war crimes law under which international leaders can be indicted. Under the new amendments, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could stand trial in a Belgian court after he retires from Israeli politics.
Following a four-hour debate, the 71-member upper chamber of the parliament ratified the amendments 34 to 6, with 6 abstentions, clearing the way for the House of Representatives to approve the texts in the next few weeks. The two revisions hope to toughen the 1993 law and make it easier for victims of war crimes to bring cases against sitting or retired world leaders.
One of the proposed amendments would allow Belgian prosecutors to start preliminary investigations into suspected war criminals even if the suspects are not in Belgium, doing away with current restrictions in the law that state accused persons must reside in the country. However, the amendment also allows Belgian authorities to better screen out and reject those cases which do not have a link to Belgium.
The second proposed law would grant Belgian courts jurisdiction over cases that cannot be brought before the newly formed International Criminal Court.
Human rights groups and the Belgian government - which backs the amendments - have argued that without the changes, the law would be useless in bringing war crimes cases to Belgian courts against such world leaders as Sharon or Cuban President Fidel Castro. Both of them, including other notable leaders such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had claims brought against them in the last few years.
Eight human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the Belgian government to move quickly in adopting the revisions, adding that time is running out. The amendments must be fully approved by the national parliament before it dissolves ahead of the May 18 elections. "Laws like this one are essential to overcome the walls of immunity behind which tyrants and torturers brutalize people in their own countries," the group of eight said last week.
The Sharon case was thrown out last June on the basis that the prime minister was not living in Belgium, raising doubts whether cases against other world leaders under the contentious law could go ahead.
Israel has already expressed its strong concerns to Belgium on the amendments, fearing it could restart the case against Sharon. Belgian prosecutors accused Sharon of responsibility for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians near Beirut.
So far, the only people tried under the Belgian war crimes law are four Rwandans sentenced between 12 and 20 years last year for their role in the 1994 genocide of the country's Tutsi ethnic minority.
By The Associated Press