US leans on Belgians to spare Sharon from atrocities trial

Mohamed Shawkat abu Rudeina believes that his family will never receive justice. "It's all over," he says. "The world has changed since 11 September 2001. The Americans rule the world."

A few yards from his concrete breeze-block home, the bullets that killed his father and uncle still puncture the walls. In 1982 up to 1,700 Palestinians were massacred here, in the camps of Sabra and Chatila. The Israeli Kahan Commission stated that Ariel Sharon - then the Israeli Defence Minister, now the Prime Minister, who sent the killers into the camps - was "personally responsible" for the killings. On that basis, Mohamed was one of the survivors who brought the legal case against Mr Sharon to Brussels.

"All my life," he says, "I wanted a father and I resented the fact that he was killed. I hated his absence in my life."

Alas, for Mohamed Shawkat, America's pressure on the Belgian government meant that Brussels - under threat of losing its rebuilding of Nato headquarters and the presence of US officials in the capital - demanded changes in Belgium's war crimes laws, so that US soldiers could not be taken to court in Europe. The Belgian administration caved in - not least because of claims that George Bush and General Tommy Franks were accused of war crimes during their March invasion of Iraq. In future, any defendants would be transferred to their own countries for trial. The Americans were safe.

But, as Chibli Mallat, one of the three lawyers representing the survivors, pointed out, this was not enough. "After the Belgians agreed to the changes, [US Secretary of Defence] Donald Rumsfeld said he wasn't happy with the changes. Is this to save Sharon from coming to trial?" Mr Mallat has studied Belgian law all too carefully. "The Belgians decided that the accused could be tried in their own country, provided it had a fair legal system. We said, 'Fine, but our plaintiffs cannot go to Israel - they, as Palestinian refugees, won't have any chance of setting foot in Israel to state their case'. So the case has to be heard in Belgium."

Mohamed Shawkat still remembers the day his father and uncle and other members of his family were ordered from their shack and taken to the yard outside. He heard the bullets that killed them, fired by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists sent into the refugee camps by Ariel Sharon in 1982 to fight "terrorists". "I knew they were murdered and I saw their bodies," he says. "Now the Belgians will submit to whatever the Americans say."

Mr Mallat won't accept this. "We are making the case in the next session of the Belgian court that if they want to 'transfer' the case to Israel, that's all fine - but our clients won't be allowed to set foot in Israel. So how can there be a fair trial?" In February, Belgium's highest court, the court of cassation, decided the case should go forward, though Mr Sharon, as a head of state, had immunity. In June the appeal court in Brussels confirmed the decision. After this, Mr Sharon and another defendant, an Israeli officer also charged with war crimes, withdrew from the court proceedings.

"The latest thing is that Rumsfeld is not happy with the changes in the Belgian law - even though the Americans now have to be tried by American courts," says Mr Mallat. "The Belgian government panicked and said 'we'll change the law again'."

"It's finished," says Mohamed Shawkat in the yard where his father was murdered. "The political situation around the world is different today. In the past, I was convinced we would have justice. But now America is a monster ... and they can terrorise the world. The Belgians will submit to their orders."

Mr Mallat takes a more legalistic view. "Do the Americans now want to say 'we are the same as Sharon'? Do they really want that? Because Sabra and Chatila was a war crime."

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