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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 18:12 GMT
Court postpones Sharon ruling
Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon resigned after the 1982 massacre
A Belgian legal panel has postponed its ruling about whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be prosecuted for war crimes.

After the first session of behind-closed-door hearings on Wednesday, court officials in Brussels said the decision was now expected in January, although they did not elaborate.

Mr Sharon, 73, was placed under investigation in July for alleged crimes against humanity, under Belgian laws which permit the prosecution of foreigners.

Magistrates have suspended the inquiry until the appeals court rules on whether they have jurisdiction in the case.

A Palestinian woman holds a helmet at a memorial service
The killings still cause great anger
The charges relate to massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when Mr Sharon was Israeli Defence Minister.

Lebanese Christian militiamen went on a three-day killing spree which left between 800 and 1,500 Palestinians dead.

Mr Sharon resigned as defence minister after an Israeli inquiry found him indirectly but "personally" responsible, for failing to stop what happened.

The charges he faces in Belgium have been brought under a controversial law passed in 1993, which allows people to be prosecuted in Belgium even if they and their victims are foreign, and if the events happened abroad.

Arafat accused

The law has sparked a number of cases against high-profile leaders, including Cuban President Fidel Castro, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

And on Tuesday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in a suit brought by about 30 Israelis and Belgians under the same law.

A decision on whether Mr Sharon can be prosecuted was delayed early in October, when Belgian lawyer Adrien Massert, appointed to represent Mr Sharon, said he needed more time to build up his case.

Diplomatic immunity

Mr Massert has said that Mr Sharon rejects the legality of the case against him.

He says Belgium has no right to try a foreigner for alleged crimes committed abroad and arguing that, as a statesman, Mr Sharon has diplomatic immunity.

The first suit against Mr Sharon, charging him with responsibility for the deaths, was lodged by a group of Palestinians, Lebanese, Moroccans and Belgians.

The second suit, which alleges crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes, was filed by 23 survivors of the massacres and five eyewitnesses.

If the case goes ahead, Mr Sharon could technically be arrested if he enters Belgium.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | Middle East
Sharon's strategy
08 Feb 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Sharon: A changed man?
18 Jun 01 | Middle East
Israelis outraged by BBC documentary
05 Feb 01 | Middle East
Refugees fear return of Sharon
23 Mar 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Europe and the Middle East
23 May 01 | Media reports
Sharon on Mitchell report: Excerpts
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