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Europe

Belgium Drops War Crimes Cases

Belgium’s highest court threw out war crimes cases against George Bush and Ariel Sharon on Wednesday, citing the lack of a legal basis. The move will likely reduce diplomatic tensions between Brussels and Washington.

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Both Bushes became subjects of possible war crimes charges under the controversial Belgian law.

Former United States President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will no longer have to appear in a Belgium court to answer to charges of crimes against humanity.

A Belgium court on Wednesday dismissed the cases against Sharon, Bush and Israeli Gen. Amos Yaron on grounds that the country’s courts did not have the jurisdiction to bring them to trial. The appeals court in Brussels further said that none of the accused had been Belgian citizens at the time when the alleged crimes were committed.

The unusual origin of the suits can be traced back to Belgium’s controversial 1993 universal-jurisdiction genocide law, which allowed anyone to file genocide and war crimes complaints against foreign leaders until last August.

Opfer des Völkermordes in Ruanda Vorwürfe gegen Frankreich

Genocide in Rwanda

First applied against Rwandans implicated in the 1994 genocide (photo) in the African country, the law has since been used by human rights campaigners, political groups and disgruntled individuals to file complaints against a score of international figures including current U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, retired U.S. General Tommy Franks and, more famously, former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

A thorn in the side

The contentious law caused Brussels much diplomatic grief because it gave courts the power to try war crimes cases irrespective of where the alleged crimes were committed and regardless of the victim or perpetrator’s identity.

It flooded the country's courts with cases against a number of world leaders including Cuban President Fidel Castro and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Under intense international pressure, Belgian legislators drastically amended it last month. The changes stipulated that human-rights complaints can be filed only if the victim or suspect was a Belgian citizen or long-term resident at the time of the alleged crime. In addition, the Belgian parliament also guaranteed diplomatic immunity for world leaders and other high-level officials visiting the country.

Decision could placate Washingon

Wednesday’s decision to drop the high-profile cases is likely to appease the U.S., which became infuriated when the end of the Iraq war saw a string of lawsuits being brought by independent parties against current President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.S. commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gen. Tommy Franks.

Relations between Belgium and the United States plummeted to all-time lows as Washington argued the law simply provided an opportunity for campaigners -- including special interest groups -- to bring politically motivated cases.

Rumsfeld threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Brussels because he said U.S. diplomats no longer felt safe and welcome in the country. In addition, Rumsfeld also vowed to freeze American funding for the alliance's new €303.4 million ($352 million) headquarters if the law was not revoked.

Under the recent changes to the act, the cases against Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are unlikely to ever come to court. On Tuesday, a Belgian court also quashed a case against Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Seventeen Iraqis and two Jordanians sought to press charges against the general, because, they allege, he gave the go-ahead for the use of cluster bombs against civilians during the war.

Representatives of the families of seven Iraqis killed or injured during the 1991 Persian Gulf war filed complaints accusing George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and current U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney having committed war crimes.

Sharon

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

The cases against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (photo) and General Yamos Aron accused them of being responsible for a 1982 massacre of Palestinians by a Lebanese Christian militia in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Belgian government appeared relieved at the court’s decision. "As long as complaints based on the universal jurisdiction law were not thrown out, we cannot resume (high level) official contacts with the United States," Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said Wednesday.

"We are satisfied with the decision," Israeli embassy spokesman Laurent Reichman told AP. "Now, both Belgium and Israel are going to work hard again to have the same friendly relations we had before."

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