Belgians Consider Trial for Sharon

Wed May 15, 12:52 PM ET

By CONSTANT BRAND, Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - After hearing closing arguments of lawyers representing survivors of a 1982 massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps, an appeals court said Wednesday it will decide June 26 if a Belgian judge should hear a war crimes case against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Lawyers for the 23 Palestinians, who launched the unusual case in Belgium last year, were confident Belgian prosecutors will be able to continue their investigation.

"What we are aiming at is for the investigation to continue," Michael Verhaeghe, the lawyer for the survivors of the massacre in the two refugee camps, said after the appeals court hearing.

"We have to have those responsible (for the massacre) identified."

Sharon's lawyers argued again that the case against the Israeli leader should be thrown out because Belgian courts have no jurisdiction over what happened in Lebanon in 1982.

Sharon was Israel's defense minister when hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps near Beirut were slaughtered by a Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel.

An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible, prompting his resignation.

The Sharon investigation started last July on the basis of a 1993 Belgian law - unique in the world - that lets anyone file war crimes charges against political leaders no matter where these were allegedly committed.

It was suspended last September, after Sharon's lawyers won an injunction to review the legality of the case against the Israeli premier.

They have argued the case should now be thrown out after the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled in February that Belgium cannot try a former Congolese foreign minister, Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, for allegedly killing of hundreds of minority Tutsis in 1998 for he has diplomatic immunity.

"Our case was very clear from the beginning," said Irit Kohn, director of the Israeli Department of Justice and one of three lawyers for Sharon. "There is no link whatsoever, there is no jurisdiction here."

Sharon's legal team got some help at the hearing when Belgian prosecutor Pierre Morlet said the Belgian Ministry of Justice believed a further case against Sharon was now impossible due to the World Court findings.

Lawyers for the Palestinian plaintiffs in the Sharon case have tried for 10 months to persuade Belgian courts they have jurisdiction to try Sharon.

Verhaeghe told the court that the International Court of Justice ruling has no bearing on the Sharon case.

Verhaeghe said if the appeals throws out the Sharon case, his clients could take their claims to the newly set up International Criminal Court which is due to start work July 1.

Besides Sharon, war crimes proceedings have also been brought in Belgium against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran among others.