The case against Ariel Sharon and several other Israeli officials, including Amos Yaron, Director-General of the Defense Ministry, concerning the massacre of several thousand Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982 took another step forward yesterday with the announcement that Sharon has been summoned to Brussels to appear before a Court of Appeal on 28 November.
The Appeals Court will decide whether the Belgian judiciary has jurisdiction to continue legal proceedings against Sharon who is charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The legal investigation was delayed in early September when lawyers acting on behalf of Sharon asked the investigative judge to drop the case on grounds that Sharon has already been the subject of a judicial procedure in Israel - i.e., the Kahan Commission.
The legal team representing the more than 20 Palestinian plaintiffs, including survivors of the massacre, rejects the arguments raised by Sharon's lawyers on several grounds. First, Sharon has not been the subject of a judicial procedure. The Kahan Commission was a governmental commission of inquiry (much like the current Or Commission investigating the killing of 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel by Israeli police in October 2000), not a court, and therefore not capable of imposing sanctions or issuing a conviction. Second, the intervention by Sharon's lawyer who was acting on behalf of the Israeli government was invalid as the complaint was issued against Sharon as an individual and not the government of Israel. Only parties to a complaint may request an appeal. Sharon has since hired a team of personal lawyers.
According to the Belgian daily Le Soir, the Belgian Ambassador in Israel, Wilfried Geens, delayed submission of the summons for Sharon to appear at the hearing until an EU delegation led by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhosftadt and Foreign Minister Louis Michel completed ts visit to Israel earlier this week. Since the case was filed in June, Israeli officials in Belgium have been pressuring Belgian authorities for an amendment to the 1993 law, which would reinstate diplomatic immunity for sitting heads of state. Officials have been trying to prevent the broadcast of BBC's Panorama investigative report about the massacres on Belgian public television.
Despite efforts by Israeli officials to turn the case into a political issue, both the government of Belgium and the legal team for the plaintiffs, have made it clear that the issue is a legal one and the process must respect the clear separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government. Israeli officials have become increasingly frustrated by the case. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli mayor of occupied Jerusalem, for example, recently described the government of Belgium as a "government of bastards" who should "go to hell." Still others have tried to de-legitimize the legal proceedings by labeling them as anti-semitic.
Since the case was filed in June 2000 several international human rights organizations have issued statements in support of the legal process. Following an earlier statement by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International issued a statement in October, welcoming "actions taken in accordance with international law to combat impunity. "We support the judicial investigation into Ariel Sharon's responsibility with regard to the Sabra and Shatila massacre."(AI Press Release, 3/10/01)
If the Belgian Appeals Courts rules in favor of the plaintiffs it will be the first time that a sitting head of state will face war crimes while in office. The court recently found two nuns guilty of abetting the genocide in Rwanda under the same law. According to the legal team representing the plaintiffs, the Belgian court would be able to try Sharon in absentia, but it would also be capable of demanding his extradition. The hearing on 28 November, however, requires neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants to attend.
For more information on the case, including copies of the complaint (French, English, Arabic), see, www.mallat.com; For information on the Sabra and Shatila massacre and war crimes see the BADIL website.