Will Sharon be indicted for Sabra, Shatila war crimes

JERUSALEM — Nineteen years after a massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinians at refugee camps in Lebanon, survivors have demanded that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be indicted on war crime charges in Belgium.

At least 23 survivors of the Christian Phalange militia rampage in the Sabra and Shatila camps are trying to see that those responsible are put behind bars, namely, Sharon, who was defense minister in 1982.

Their lawyer, Michael Verhaeghe, says indictments are also being sought for Major-General Amos Yaron, who was chief infantry and paratroop officer, and the Phalangists, who did the actual killing.

In an interview with Jerusalem Post Radio, Verhaeghe said all that interests his clients is justice.

"These crimes being the most serious offenses possible, also in Belgian national order and in international order, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment," said Verhaeghe. "According to our legal analysis, we consider [Sharon] to be morally responsible…In our file there are more-than-sufficient indications of guilt."

A magistrate has been officially appointed to investigate the matter.

The Palestinians do not have Belgian citizenship, but Verhaeghe maintains they have the right to bring the matter to a court in Brussels. In 1993, Belgian law was changed to allow this type of complaint to be filed by non-nationals. This, said the attorney, was in line with the Nuremberg, Tokyo, and Eichmann decisions.

Meanwhile, this week's BBC "Panorama" documentary on the role of Sharon in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps is continuing to cause waves in Israel and in judicial circles.

Israel's Foreign Ministry put out a statement saying that "Israel views with the utmost gravity the distorted, unfair, and intentionally hostile nature of the Panorama program. The timing of the program, 19 years after the events in question, shows a lack of good faith and an attempt to tarnish Israel and its leader.

"The BBC has put itself up as a television tribunal, while at the same time manifestly and willfully ignoring the findings of established courts in the U.S. and Israel."

In addition, Israel's state-owned television channel refuses to air the documentary, and a leading international war-crimes lawyer, who participated in the program, is insisting he did not say Sharon should be indicted for his role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees, despite reports to the contrary.

During the Sunday broadcast, Judge Richard Goldstone said that "if the person who gave the command knows, or should know, that there's a situation where innocent civilians are going to be injured or killed, then that person is as responsible — in my book more responsible even, than the people who carry out the orders."

Goldstone, a former chief prosecutor for the U.N.'s criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, sought to clarify his comments in an interview with Jerusalem Post Radio.

"I agreed to speak to [the BBC] as an expert on the law in general, on command responsibility, but I said I would not in any way comment on any liability, criminal or civil, of Ariel Sharon and I didn't do so.

"I haven't yet seen the program, but if it comes across that way it's incorrect… I certainly didn't comment on the responsibility of Sharon."

Regardless, Ruth Lapidot, a professor of international law at Hebrew University, believes it is highly unlikely Sharon will be brought to trial, given the rulings contained in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with the protection of people in times of war.

"It says 'they have an obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed or to have ordered to be committed,' which means the penal sanctions apply only to a person who either has committed himself or has ordered to be committed some of these terrible deeds," Lapidot explained.

The International Committee of the Red Cross interpretation of the convention suggests no legal responsibility is incurred by those who do not intervene to prevent or to put an end to a breach of the convention, she noted.

Two additional considerations make it unlikely that Verhaeghe's mission will succeed, said Lapidot. "Heads of states and prime ministers cannot be brought to trial while serving, according to international law."

Additionally, if Belgian law is not in conformity with international law, Belgian jurisdiction could be ruled out. "The Belgian court can exercise universal jurisdiction with regard to offenses under international law but not offenses which the Belgians think are appropriate."