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Israel: Jubilation, Dismay Greet Sharon War Crimes Ruling

Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There was jubilation and dismay outside a Belgian appeals court today, after judges threw out a lawsuit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The court ruled that Belgium cannot investigate war crimes charges against Sharon, and threw out a lawsuit brought by a group of Palestinians and Lebanese against Sharon's alleged role in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps near Beirut.

This is how court spokesman Guy Delvoie summarized the 22-page ruling. "[The complaints] are not admissible because of a rule of Belgian law, a principle of Belgian law that crimes committed in another country cannot be prosecuted in Belgium unless the author or the presumed author has been found in Belgiumm," Delvoie said.

Adrien Masset, one of the lawyers acting for Sharon, welcomed the ruling. "Of course, the Israeli parties are completely happy with this decision because there is no universal jurisdiction for Belgium as [General Amos Yaron, the Israel Army commander near Beirut at the time of the killings] and Mr. Sharon have not been found in Belgium. So this means the end of the Sharon case," Masset said.

And Sharon's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, speaking in Jerusalem, had this to say: "One nation cannot judge another nation. A nation which doesn't, fortunately, have to fight terror and war, will hardly understand a nation that has to do it," Peres said.

The survivors who brought the suit were sorely disappointed. AFP quoted one, 37-year-old Souad Srour El Marai, as saying, "I would have preferred to have died than to hear this." She said she lost her father and six brothers in the massacre, and was herself raped and injured.

And human-rights organizations also expressed dismay, describing the ruling as a blow to other victims of atrocities who had pinned hopes on prosecution through Belgian courts.

It was a Lebanese Christian militia group allied to Israel that slaughtered some 800 people -- many of them women and children -- during the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. But the group of 23 survivors claims Sharon was responsible for the killings as he was Israeli defense minister at the time.

The group brought the case in Brussels because of a Belgian law that allows serious cases of human-rights crimes to be heard in Belgian courts even if they were carried out abroad.

The lawsuit provoked anger in Israel and earned the Belgian prime minister a hostile reception during a visit to Israel.

But the case was already undermined by a February ruling from the International Court of Justice, the United Nations' highest judicial authority. In that ruling, the ICJ said Belgium could not prosecute a former Congolese foreign minister for human-rights violations because he had diplomatic immunity at the time he is meant to have incited mass killings.

Legal experts at the time said this signaled the end of the Sharon lawsuit. In the end, though, it was the lack of any link between Sharon and Belgium, and not diplomatic immunity, that provided the grounds for today's ruling.

But the lawyers acting for the survivors say it's not all over yet. Luc Walleyn is one of three legal representatives. "It is, of course, a [setback] for us, but it is not the end of our struggle and it is not the end of the procedure. There will be a request to the Supreme Court," Walleyn said.

He added that Belgian lawmakers may react to the ruling since, "the will of the legislature is not respected in this case."