UK to restrict prosecution for war crimes abroad |

UK to restrict prosecution for war crimes abroad

Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Thursday he would block private groups from launching war crimes prosecutions against visiting foreign dignitaries, following a controversy inflamed by an arrest warrant for former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Brown said that Britain’s principle of universal jurisdiction – a wide-ranging legal concept that allows judges to issue warrants for nearly any visitor accused of committing war crimes anywhere in the world – was being abused.

While heads of state and senior ministers enjoy immunity, pro-Palestinian groups have used the law to try to arrest former or retired Israeli officials, including Livni, who now serves as opposition leader, and retired Gen. Doron Almog, who narrowly dodged arrest at Britain’s Heathrow Airport in 2005.

Brown said the law was being abused by groups “who set out only to grab headlines knowing their case has no realistic chance of a successful prosecution.”

Writing in The Daily Telegraph Thursday, Brown said “Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for the sake of tolerating such gestures.”

But human rights activists criticized Brown’s pledge as a step in the wrong direction, and one parliamentarian said that the prime minister – who is only weeks from an election that could sweep his Labour Party from power – had very little time to change the law.

“It sounds to me like a stunt,” Labour lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn said of Brown’s announcement. “There’s no way it can get through.”

With the consultation process expected to take about a month and the election likely to be held on May 6, Corbyn said the window for legislation was very narrow.

Corbyn said Brown’s statement was a way of placating Britons angered by the attempt to arrest Livni ahead of what’s widely expected to be a tough election.

December’s attempt to arrest Livni, who enjoys a dovish reputation in much of the West, drew outrage in Israel, whose government warned that Britain’s laws risked paralyzing relations between the two countries.

Britain has previously invoked universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute Afghan warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, who was convicted and jailed for 20 years on charges of torture and hostage taking.

But Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last month that the rules could be used to threaten Britain’s ability to hold face-to-face talks with senior political figures from other nations and promised to tweak the law.

Diplomats here said Israeli officials have raised the issue with the U.K., but insist that Brown’s government already planned to address inconsistencies in British law which allow individuals to seek the arrest of others on sometimes spurious or malicious grounds.

In January, Britain’s solicitor-general Vera Baird – a lawmaker who acts as a government legal adviser – acknowledged that loopholes in current laws allowed special interest groups to use the threat of arrest to intimidate some foreign senior politicians, including Israelis.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw told lawmakers that the effect of the change would mean that arrest warrants would only be issued when there was “a realistic likelihood of a successful prosecution.”

But human rights organizations and Muslim groups warned that the reform might hold arrest warrants hostage to diplomatic sensitivities.

Benjamin Ward, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe, said his organization “would be concerned with any proposal that would effectively abolish private prosecutions for these crimes.”

A similar tightening of the rules already has taken place in Spain, which like Britain subscribed to the concept of universal jurisdiction – and has also attracted Israel’s ire.

Spanish judges have indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, among others. The practical effect of the doctrine was negligible because extraditions were rare – but momentum for reform started building last year after a judge began probing a deadly 2002 Israeli air force bombing and alleged Chinese abuses in Tibet.

Both Israel and China complained, and Spanish officials promised that the government would amend the law. In a rare show of bipartisan unity, the rules were changed last year so that they could only be invoked if Spanish victims were involved, or if the alleged perpetrators were in Spain.

Other European countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands have variants of the universal jurisdiction laws, but prosecutions have a checkered record.

There was no immediate comment from Israel’s Foreign Ministry or the Israeli Embassy in London to Brown’s announcement Thursday.

Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report.

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Brown’s editorial in the Telegraph: