A Belgian Senator said on Tuesday that he recently went on a fact-finding mission to Lebanon as part of his "convictions" that his nation's current prosecution of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on charges of genocide and war crimes should serve as an "example" for future such trials in Belgium.
In a telephone interview with ICEJ NEWS yesterday, Belgian Senator Vincent van Quickenborne dismissed as "absolute nonsense" any notion that his personal involvement in the trial against Sharon and other Israeli figures was politically motivated, saying it arose from his "convictions as a member of parliament."
"This is not politics. This is justice," insisted van Quickenborne.
Van Quickenborne also flatly denied that his trip to Lebanon two weeks ago to meet with potential witnesses and to encourage them to testify was an improper interference by a legislator in an on-going judicial proceeding.
"The people we interviewed were mentioned in the complaint," said van Quickenborne. "It's absolute nonsense... The victims' families came up with the complaint."
Van Quickenborne asserted there are some "80 to 100 pages" in the complaint and other documentation against Sharon that are of a "super high quality," thus making it a "good test case" to serve as a precedent for future suits against other world leaders. "This case will be used as an example based on procedure," he stated.
Sharon is being sued in Belgium on charges of "genocide" and "war crimes" by families of the Palestinian victims of the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut. The case was brought under a 1993 Belgian law that allows foreign plaintiffs to use its courts to pursue those alleged to have committed internationally banned war crimes.
In the wake of Sabra and Shatilla, an Israeli commission of inquiry found that Sharon, as defense minister at the time, was "indirectly responsible" for not anticipating the massacre of some 800 Palestinians in the camps in Beirut, which was actually carried out by Christian Phalangist militiamen. Sharon contended that IDF commanders instructed the Phalangist units to avoid harming civilians, and that no one expected the massacres to occur, based on the past performance of these Israeli allies.
The present case in Brussels has reached a critical stage, as an appeals court is expected to rule on March 6 as to whether there is jurisdiction to try Sharon and the other Israeli defendants in Belgium.
Israeli officials have objected that war crimes charges against 30 other world leaders have been submitted to Belgian courts, yet the only one that has been expedited for prosecution is the Sharon case. The 30 include PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.
Among other defenses, Sharon's legal team has asserted that the Belgian case is politically motivated, since it was brought only after Sharon became prime minister and only named Israeli political and military figures, but not any of the Lebanese militiamen who actually pulled the trigger.
The Palestinian families behind the lawsuit at one point openly criticized their own lawyers for failing to also name any of the Lebanese militiamen involved, particularly their commander Elias Hobeika, widely regarded by Palestinians and others as the main figure behind the massacre.
Hobeika was killed in a car bombing in Beirut last week, two days after he met with van Quickenborne and fellow Belgian senator Josy Dubie and confirmed he was willing to come to Belgium to present "irrefutable proof" of his innocence. Hobeika added, however, that he felt "threatened" there were some who might not want his account of the incident to be heard.
Lebanese officials instantly blamed Israel for Hobeika's death, accusations that were forcefully denied by Jerusalem. Since then, Lebanese authorities have launched an investigation into Hobeika's death and have questioned the former owner of the car used in the bombing, who gave them a description of the persons he sold it to several months ago.
Meanwhile, many Palestinians in Lebanon celebrated Hobeika's assassination and lamented that someone else had gotten to him before they did.
Hobeika had many enemies besides the Palestinians. His own Maronite community felt betrayed when he emerged as one of the staunchest supporters of Syrian domination of their country. As a reward, the Assad regime in Damascus protected Hobeika and promoted him to positions in Lebanon's parliament and cabinet.
But he recently fell out of favor with Syria after his former bodyguard Robert Hatem, also known as "Cobra," wrote a book exposing Hobeika as a Syrian double agent who, although under strict orders not to resort to unnecessary violence in Sabra and Shatilla, ordered his men to carry out "total extermination, camps to be wiped out."
However, the most likely suspect is the group that actually claimed responsibility for the attack on Hobeika, the Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon, a new Christian group that wants Syria to end its stranglehold over their nation.
When asked by ICEJ NEWS if he thought his recent contact with Hobeika might have precipitated someone to act against him, van Quickenborne said the bombing likely was a long time in planning.
Queried whether he was also making similar efforts to contact Hatem and encourage him to testify, the Belgian lawmaker responded, "No, but that is a good idea." He said he has read some of Hatem's book, "From Israel to Damascus," which is banned in Lebanon but is available in English on-line at www.israeltodamascus.com.
Hatem reportedly is living in secret exile in France and has shunned press interviews. But van Quickenborne noted that Hatem had been quoted in one recent media report as saying that Syria was behind Hobeika's assassination.
When pressed whether he would be just as active in finding witnesses for the Belgian suits brought against Arafat and other PLO officials by victims of Palestinian terrorism, van Quickenborne shot back that terrorism does not qualify as "crimes against humanity" or "genocide," as defined by the United Nations. "If Arafat is accused of genocide, I'm prepared to come over [to Israel]," he said.
Van Quickenborne belittled the Belgian case against Arafat as "only a few pages" of much lesser "quality" than the action against Sharon.
Actually, there are two separate lawsuits being brought against Arafat at this time, with both groups of plaintiffs claiming to have mounds of evidence against him and more pouring in all the time.
Nonetheless, van Quickenborne was adamant that the Sharon case should be pursued ahead of the others, describing it as "the first test for the law and it's a good test... The number of complaints shows that people have other possible crimes. This is a case against procedural matter and a case against Sharon. This case has tons of files, tons of witnesses."
Despite his activist role in the Sharon lawsuit, Van Quickenborne maintained that the judicial and legislative branches in Belgium are "very separated," especially after a 1996 law "strengthened" the independence of the judiciary.
Van Quickenborne also clarified that during his recent visit to the site of the 1996 Kfar Kana shelling incident in southern Lebanon, he merely suggested that families of the victims should feel welcome to come sue in Belgium, without naming any Israeli officials he might consider responsible. Some press reports took his comments to mean that then-prime minister Shimon Peres should be charged.
And finally, in answer to a hypothetical on the unique Belgian law, van Quickenborne said that even families of the 60 Jewish victims massacred in the 1929 Arab riots in Hebron could also bring a case if they wanted to.