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British Government Wants to Change International Legal Procedures

British Parliament in central London

British Parliament in central London

The British government says it plans to introduce legislation to change the process for getting an arrest warrant for suspected war criminals. The change is an attempt to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment last year when an Israeli official abandoned a visit to Britain after a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Last December former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni abruptly cancelled a visit to London when she learned she could be arrested for alleged war crimes in Gaza. Then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was outraged and promised a change to the law. Now the government here wants the public prosecutor to have veto power over arrest warrants for war crimes and similar offenses.

Human rights campaigners oppose the move.

"There will be a whole additional layer of bureaucracy added to the process and it makes it highly likely that people will escape detection and will escape apprehension," said Eric Metcalfe, director of Human Rights Policy and Justice.

The 1998 arrest here of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, on a Spanish warrant, was the first application of the principle of Universal Jurisdiction - the notion that some crimes are so egregious, that a state is entitled to prosecute no matter where the crime took place. Mr. Pinochet was detained in Britain for 16 months before being released on health grounds.

War crimes expert James Gow says that was a diplomatic embarrassment and the British government is introducing new legislation to prevent it from happening again.

"What they're trying to do is tighten it up. As things stand, anybody can go to any magistrates court. The rules for getting an arrest warrant are quite simple and therefore the authorities have to act on it," he said.

Officials also say changing the law will help prevent politically motivated requests. But opponents say justice is more important than protecting trade or diplomatic relationships.

"The United Kingdom and Israel are both democracies governed by the rule of law and it's in both our countries' interests for the rule of law to be carried out independently of the interests of the government and the executive," said Eric Metcalfe, director of Human Rights Policy and Justice.

Former Bosnian President Ejup Ganic

Former Bosnian President Ejup Ganic

This spring, former Bosnian president Ejup Ganic was arrested, when Serbia indicated it would request extradition in connection with alleged war crimes. Under treaty terms, British courts were obliged to proceed with the case.

"We hope that this country will look into how my father was arrested, will look into how this man was held for 10 days in one of your worst prisons," said Emina Ganic, daughter of the former president.

After five months, the judge threw out the case, saying there was no evidence and calling it an abuse of justice. While Mr. Ganic's release was a victory for his lawyers, many saw it as an indictment of the British justice system.

Government officials refused to comment on the pending legislation except to say any change to the law would take months.