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Belgian High Court Dismisses War Crimes Cases Against Top US Officials

Belgium's highest court has dismissed war crimes cases against former President George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This is the latest ruling in a series of cases involving a controversial Belgian law.

The ruling by the top court in Belgium. Cour de Cassation, is in keeping with the new government policy on the controversial law.

All the cases were filed under a Belgian universal jurisdiction law that allowed Belgian courts to try war crimes cases no matter where the alleged offenses were committed, and regardless of the nationality of those involved.

Under heavy diplomatic pressure, the Belgian Parliament in August passed a new war-crimes law that dropped the claim of universal jurisdiction and said cases may be brought only if the victim is a Belgian citizen, or was a long-term resident at the time of the alleged crime. The new law also guaranteed immunity for world leaders and other government officials visiting Belgium.

One of the specific cases the court dismissed was against former President Bush and Secretary Powell. It was filed by Iraqi victims of the 1991 Gulf War, when Mr. Powell was the senior U.S. military officer. The other case was against Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. It related to a 1982 massacre in Lebanon when he was Israeli Defense Minister.

In a separate ruling, another Belgian court said Tuesday that a war crimes complaint against retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, who commanded coalition forces in the Iraq war this year, should be dropped.

The cases against American officials prompted Washington to threaten to move NATO headquarters out of Brussels. The case against Mr. Sharon strained Belgian-Israeli relations.

The original law was passed in 1993 and was first used to prosecute two Rwandan nuns on genocide charges in 2001. This prompted a series of other lawsuits against people around the world, including leaders. Even Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel was targeted, when an opposition party filed a compliant accusing him of illegally authorizing arms shipments to Nepal.

Earlier this year, Mr. Michel told the Belgian Senate that the noble cause that prompted the parliament to adopt the original law had been abused and manipulated for political ends. He said relations have been damaged with nations that traditionally have excellent ties with Belgium.