Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 6 News List

British judge says Barak immune from prosecution

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Israel received an uncomfortable reminder of international anger over the Gaza war on Tuesday when lawyers representing 16 Palestinians asked a London court to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is visiting Britain.

After a day of delays and legal wrangling the bid failed on the grounds that Barak enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution. But the episode triggered a brief storm that is likely to give Israeli officials second thoughts about the risk of prosecution in foreign courts.

Barak was addressing a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Brighton on Tuesday night and was due to meet British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Furious Israeli officials insisted all day that he was protected by diplomatic immunity and could not be legally detained.

The action related to alleged war crimes and breaches of the Geneva conventions during the Gaza offensive, launched by Israel last December in response to Palestinian rocket attacks and widely criticized. The death toll is disputed, but the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says 1,387 Palestinians died, including 773 people not taking part in hostilities.

Lawyers asked a district judge at the City of Westminster magistrates court, London, to issue a warrant for Barak’s arrest under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.

The hearing was postponed while the court asked the Foreign Office to clarify Barak’s status in the UK. The lawyers making the application said they believed a warrant could be issued even if he was in Britain in an official capacity.

Intensive contacts were understood to have taken place throughout the day between London and Jerusalem. Barak is also deputy prime minister of Israel and leader of the country’s Labour party.

Lawyers from Irvine Thanvi Natas and Imran Khan & Partners said they believed the warrant that the international criminal court issued in May last year for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir offered a precedent. Bashir is accused of committing war crimes in Darfur.

The issue is politically explosive. Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor lambasted the move as the “continuation of the process of demonization and the delegitimization of Israel,” and called the action “spiteful.”

Deputy district judge Daphne Wickham said allegations of war crimes had been well documented, but added: “I am satisfied that under customary international law Mr Barak has immunity from prosecution as he would not be able to perform his functions efficiently if he were the subject of criminal proceedings in this jurisdiction.”

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