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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 19:57 GMT
Belgium rules Sharon can be tried
A Palestinian woman brandishes helmets during a memorial service in Beirut September 27, 1982, for victims of Lebanon's Sabra refugee camp massacre
Hundreds were killed in refugee camps
Belgium's highest appeals court has ruled that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could face war crimes charges, but only after he leaves office.

The court was responding to an appeal by a group of 23 Palestinian survivors of a massacre in Lebanon more than 20 years ago, when Mr Sharon was Israel's defence chief.

The killings in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were carried out by Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel, which then occupied southern Lebanon.

Chairman of Brussels Cour de cassation Marc Lahousse
The court overturned an earlier ruling
Israel withdrew its ambassador to Belgium "for consultations" in response to the court ruling.

The suit was brought under Belgium's 1993 "universal jurisdiction" law, which allows for the prosecution of alleged war crimes no matter where they took place.

Last summer a lower court ruled that Mr Sharon could not be tried under the law because he was not in Belgium, but the government has since moved to amend the legislation.

The change, which allows for prosecution even if the defendant is not in the country, is expected to be passed this spring.

Indirect responsibility

Mr Sharon was Israel's defence minister at the time of the killings at Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

An Israeli investigation found Mr Sharon indirectly responsible for failing to prevent the killings of between 800 and 2,000 refugees.

Mr Sharon was forced to resign from government but never faced charges over the incident.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon resigned over the killings

In the run-up to the 2001 Israeli elections, he expressed regret about the "terrible tragedy" at the refugee camps - but rejected any responsibility.

Besides Mr Sharon, war crimes proceedings have been brought in Belgium against a number of world figures.

These include Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

But those trials were suspended in June, after the Brussels appeals court ruling.

So far, the only people tried under Belgium's controversial war crimes law are four Rwandans sentenced in 2001 for their role in the 1994 genocide of the country's Tutsi ethnic minority.


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13 Feb 02 | Middle East
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