Magazine article The Middle East

Sharon Dodges War Crimes Lawsuit for Now; Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Appears to Have Evaded Justice over the Massacres at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps but His Reprieve May Be Only Temporary. (Israel)

Magazine article The Middle East

Sharon Dodges War Crimes Lawsuit for Now; Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Appears to Have Evaded Justice over the Massacres at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps but His Reprieve May Be Only Temporary. (Israel)

Article excerpt

Just five days before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent world tribunal to prosecute dictators and war criminals, came into existence in The Hague on 1 July, a Belgian appeals court dismissed a lawsuit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The case accused him of being responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982.

The ruling, followed a year of fierce legal and diplomatic wrangling that severely jolted the Israeli establishment and provided a controversial backdrop for the formal launch of the ICC. The result dismayed human rights activists who have long sought to see Sharon put on trial for the massacres, carried out by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen under his command, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

Although the Belgian lawsuit against Sharon--Israel's defence minister in 1982--brought by 23 survivors of the massacres and relatives of some of the victims, was not directly connected to the ICC, which is not empowered to handle retroactive cases, the appeals court decision not to prosecute was seen as a setback for those championing the evolving framework of international criminal law.

Similar lawsuits before Belgian courts against Yasser Ararat, brought by the victims of Palestinian attacks with Israeli government backing, as well as those against former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Fidel Castro, have presumably also been voided.

The ICC, the world's first permanent legal forum created to try war crimes, allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and major human rights abuses, is a landmark in international justice. But the court's future has been threatened by the increasingly unilateralist Bush administration's implacable opposition to its existence, claiming that US forces engaged in military operations around the world, including peacekeeping missions, would be liable to politically motivated prosecution.

The US has refused to ratify the 1988 Rome Treaty that produced the ICC, even though it reluctantly signed the pact at the last minute. So has Israel, despite assurances it would not be politically targeted. "The moment the charter of the court took the shape of a political institution, we could no longer be a part of it," said Yonaton Baker, spokesman for Israel's justice ministry.

Ironically, Lebanon has also refused to ratify the Rome Treaty on the grounds that senior government officials--some of whom rose to prominence as militia leaders during the 1975-90 civil war--could be vulnerable to prosecution. As it is, there are several well-known Lebanese leaders who would not have been happy to see the Sharon case go ahead in Belgium, Many feared being implicated in the atrocities, committed by all sides during the civil war that left more than 150,000 dead, thousands missing and hundreds of thousands displaced in their own land. The assassination in Beirut in January of Elie Hobeika, wartime leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), the Christian militia chiefly responsible for the massacres, after he had said he would testify against Sharon in Brussels, raised questions about who, more than 20 years after Sabra and Shatila, chose to silence him. Hobeika died in a car bomb ambush near his Beirut home.

Lebanese government officials blame the Israelis. But Hobeika, who later in the war turned his back on the LF and on Israel to ally himself with the Syrians, had no shortage of enemies in Lebanon, even within his own Maronite community. Neither is it inconceivable that certain prominent figures in Damascus were concerned about Hobeika's willingness to testify in a foreign court, presumably to clear his own name by pointing the finger at others.

The violent or mysterious deaths of three other LF-related Maronites, at least one of whom was intimately connected to Hobeika during and after the civil war, has done little to dampen speculation of a link between Hobeika's assassination and the Sharon case. …

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