Belgium Pursues Justice without Borders ; in an International First, a Belgian Jury Sentenced Four Rwandans to Prison Friday for a 1994 Genocide in Africa

Article excerpt

Justice may be blind, but her reach is getting longer.

When a panel of Belgian jurors convicted four Rwandans of participating in the 1994 genocide in their country, they pioneered a new brand of "universal justice" that knows no borders.

The verdict, handed down early Friday morning after 11 hours of deliberation in the gloomy granite Palace of Justice in Brussels, marked the first time that a civilian jury - not a judge - in one country had judged crimes against humanity committed elsewhere.

"Every citizen of the world is concerned by a crime against humanity," said Michele Hirsch, a lawyer for relatives of victims of the genocide, in which as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. "That makes every citizen competent to sit in judgment of such crimes."

"I hope that this is going to push the idea of universal justice, that it will be a springboard for other such cases," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

The jury found the defendants, including two Roman Catholic nuns, guilty on most of the 55 counts against them, including murder and incitement to genocide. Witnesses called during the seven-week trial testified that the nuns had encouraged and collaborated with Hutu extremists who butchered and burned several thousand Tutsi refugees who had sought shelter in their convent. The nuns, a former government minister, and a former university professor were sentenced to between 12 and 20 years in prison.

The case was brought by Rwandan Tutsi exiles in Belgium, who had recognized on the streets of Brussels some of the Hutu extremists who carried out the genocide. They made use of a 1993 Belgian law that allows courts here to try cases of atrocities regardless of where they were committed. The defendant does not even have to be in Belgium to stand trial.

That law proved an embarrassment to the Belgian government last week, when it emerged that a private group had filed charges with judicial authorities here against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for his role in the massacre of Palestinians by Christian militia in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, when Mr. Sharon was defense minister.

The law does not offer immunity to serving heads of state or government, or to other officials accused of genocide, war crimes, or other crimes against humanity.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said on Wednesday his government would "try to correct" aspects of the law. Diplomats said the law as it stands could hobble Belgian international relations. Brussels could not hope to mediate the Middle East conflict, for example, if Belgian courts were investigating the Israeli prime minister's alleged involvement in war crimes.

Mr. Michel added, however, that he remained committed to the principle behind the law, giving Belgian courts the right to try foreigners for foreign atrocities.

In fact, countries that ratify the 1949 Geneva Convention are bound to try such cases, but few actually do so. …