A Belgian appeals court ruled today that Belgium could not try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for alleged crimes against humanity for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982. The justices wrote in their decision that the case could not proceed against a person who is not in Belgium.
"If a person is not found on the territory, we find it inadmissible," the three-judge panel said in its 22-page ruling.
Israeli lawyers representing the prime minister were satisfied with the decision. "This is the correct decision and it fits the standards of international law."
"It's a suit that started with more politics than law," said Danny Shek, head of the European department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "I'm glad it's ended. It's what we saw as the logical outcome. The system did not fail us."
In its last session before issuing its ruling, the Belgian appeals court discussed a precedent set in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled that it was not possible to try officials for their actions as long as they continued to serve in their positions. Belgian law grants Belgian leaders similar immunity.
"This it the best possible result for Israel, because it not only exonerates Sharon, but also the other defendants," members of the Israeli legal team said.
The Belgian ruling frees the other defendants in the case - former chief of staff Rafael Eitan, former Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Amir Drori, and former division commander Amos Yaron - now director-general of the Defense Ministry - from the danger of prosecution.
The case against Sharon arose from a Belgian law, passed in 1993, which permits Belgian courts to try cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, regardless of where they took place or the nationality or residence of either the victims or the accused.
Two lawsuits were filed against Sharon, charging him with responsibility for the refugees' deaths in the camps and with crimes against humanity and war crimes. Belgium's refusal to dismiss the charges severely strained its relations with Israel.
The Belgian court's decision is expected to be the final stage of the lawsuit process, and allows Sharon and the other defendants to travel to Belgium without the fear of political arrest. The plaintiffs still have the option to appeal the decision to Belgium's Supreme Court.
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