Sharon begins to take war-crimes lawsuit seriously

Last week, Ariel Sharon hired a lawyer and warned army leaders to travel with caution in Europe.

On a dark September night in 1982, Suad Srour, a 17-year-old Palestinian, suffered an ordeal of unspeakable horror. Israeli-allied Lebanese Christian militiamen burst into her simple home deep inside Beirut's Shatila refugee camp, raped her, and shot dead her father and five of her siblings.

The Lebanese militiamen had been ordered to cleanse the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila of "terrorists." The exact death toll for the massacre remains unknown: estimates vary from 800 and 2,000.

The man who issued the order was Israel's defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, now prime minister of Israel. Nineteen years later, Mr. Sharon faces the prospect of setting an international legal precedent by becoming the first serving prime minister to stand trial for crimes against humanity. And it seems he is beginning to feel the heat.

Last month, 28 Palestinian survivors of the massacre - including Ms. Srour - filed a lawsuit in a Belgian court against Mr. Sharon and other Israelis and Lebanese considered responsible for the killings.

The plaintiffs took advantage of a 1993 Belgian law that gives local courts jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva war crimes convention, allowing claimants to seek cases against foreigners suspected of crimes against humanity, no matter where they occurred.

A 1999 amendment to the law removed the immunity from prosecution usually reserved for serving heads of state.

"This made it pretty clear that Sharon could not use his immunity to avoid being indicted," says Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese specialist in international criminal law and one of two lawyers to file the lawsuit.

The Belgian court swiftly decided that the case merited a full investigation, pending the serving of indictments. Last week, Patrick Collignon, a Belgian investigating magistrate, began hearing testimony from the survivors of the massacre.

In response, Sharon, who had originally dismissed the lawsuit, hired a Belgian lawyer in the growing realization that he could soon face indictment.

If Mr. Collignon decides the case should go to trial, he has the option of issuing a secret indictment against Sharon.

This means the indictment would not be made public, in the hope of catching the Israeli premier unawares as he goes about his normal diplomatic business.

"That's why Sharon is so worried," Mr. Mallat says. "If Sharon is in Spain and the indictment is prepared in secret, it's possible that the Spanish authorities will arrest him for extradition to Belgium."

If found guilty, Sharon faces life imprisonment and may have to pay compensation to the survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Israel is taking the threat of possible prosecutions so seriously that it has begun to draw a map of countries where Israeli leaders could face trial for war crimes. Israel fears that military officials, such as Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli chief of staff, may face indictments for the deaths of civilians in the 10-month old Palestinian intifada in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But Israelis aren't the only ones who have reason to fear the lawsuit over Sabra and Shatila. The Israeli Kahan Commission - which originally found that Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre, leading him to resign - also named the Lebanese militia commander, Elie Hobeika.

Mr. Hobeika was head of intelligence for the Lebanese Christian militia. It is widely believed he was tasked with sending his militiamen into the camps to carry out the massacre, under order of the Israelis. Although he has not been named in the Belgium lawsuit, the suit draws upon the findings of the Kahan Commission, and declares that any Israeli or Lebanese found "responsible" for the massacre could be charged.

Mr. Hobeika later switched his allegiance from Israel to Syria and served as a Lebanese government minister from 1991 to 1998. Today, he has retired from politics and is a successful businessman. But, like Sharon, his blood-soaked past has returned to haunt him.

Hobeika emerged from the shadows recently to claim innocence in the massacre and express his willingness to travel to Belgium to testify in court.

"My name appeared in only one place: the Kahan commission," he said. "I have two things in my possession: evidence that proves my innocence, and information that tells a different story from that told by the Kahan Commission."

It remains unknown, however, what fresh evidence Hobeika possesses.

But for the survivors of the massacre, even the possibility of seeing Sharon in court cannot dispel the horrors they experienced 19 years ago.

"The Western world cannot imagine the agonizing moments we went through," says Suad Srour. "We have been living in anguish all these years, waiting for our mental scars to heal."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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