FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues



Belgian bill would allow Sharon to be tried in absentia

By Janine Zacharia
Jerusalem Post
August 7, 2002

Belgian lawyers for Israel have been consulting with officials here for the past few days over proposed Belgian legislation that could, if passed, revive war crimes' charges against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and subject other Israelis to similar legal battles.

In June, a Belgian court dismissed a case accusing Sharon of responsibility for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The court said Sharon could not be tried since he does not live in Belgium.

Under a 1993 law granting Belgian courts "universal jurisdiction" over war crimes committed anywhere in the world, the accused must be present on Belgian soil to be tried.

One of two proposed Belgian laws would overrule that decision and allow for accused, including Sharon, to be tried in absentia. Some of the Belgian senators who are lobbying for the legal change have been vocal advocates of the case against Sharon, which strained Israeli-Belgian ties.

The second bill attempts to ensure Belgium's self-appointed role as arbiter of alleged international crimes, despite the establishment of an International Criminal Court set up for that purpose.

This bill says that Belgium should handle all cases dealing with issues prior to the establishment of the court last month (the ICC will only prosecute people for crimes committed after July 2002). It also says Belgium will prosecute cases involving countries that have not ratified the court's charter. That includes the US and Israel.

Israel has seen preliminary drafts of both bills.

"Obviously this will have implications for Israel," said Danny Shek, the Foreign Ministry official who oversees Belgian-Israeli relations.

Daniel Saada, an adviser in the Israeli Embassy in Brussels, told the Associated Press Israeli and Belgian leaders have not exchanged visits and there is virtually no dialogue between the countries because of the Sharon case. Recent acts of anti-Semitism have further strained relations, he added.

"It's too early to say that we will cut off diplomatic ties but we will not remain passive and we will do everything in our power to make the seriousness of the situation known to the Belgian government," Saada said.

If the first law passes and Belgian courts are given the power to try accused in absentia, Israelis who are convicted would be unable to travel to countries with which Belgium has an extradition agreement.

The Belgian parliament is expected to vote on the bills in October after a summer recess.

Israeli officials summoned the Belgian ambassador a few weeks ago to discuss the bills and express Israel's concerns. Follow-up meetings are expected. Israel is especially watching whether the governing coalition in Belgium will support the bills.

"We will certainly make our feelings known to the Belgians, and we will continue a dialogue with them, and we will see which way this goes.

Obviously a big question is whether the government and the coalition will stand behind these proposals. For the time being, it seems they are going to vote for them," Shek said.