London (CNSNews.com) - The British government may bar private citizens from obtaining arrest warrants for alleged war criminals who visit the country.
The move follows an incident last September in which a British court, after reviewing evidence prepared by Palestinian campaigners, issued an arrest warrant for a retired Israeli army general who was due to arrive in London the next day.
Major-General Doron Almog was accused of committing a war crime by allegedly destroying homes in a Gaza refugee camp in January 2002 in retaliation for the death of Israeli soldiers.
Upon his arrival at Heathrow Airport, Almog was warned by an Israeli military attache that police were waiting for him. He decided not to get off the plane and returned to Israel.
Ministers later told the House of Commons that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had apologized to the Israeli government over the incident and that two more meetings were held with Israeli officials.
Andy Burnham, a minister in the Home Office, told lawmakers earlier this year that the government was considering ending the right of British citizens to present evidence in court independently of government prosecutors - at least in cases with international dimensions.
British law allows the prosecution of foreigners on war crimes charges, even if Britain or its citizens were not involved in the incident.
Since the end of World War II, only one man has been convicted in Britain on war crimes charges. He was Anthony Sawoniuk, a former railroad worker found guilty of genocide in Nazi-occupied Belarus.
However, in the summer of 2005, a former Afghan war lord living in London was convicted of conspiracy to commit torture in his home country during the 1990s.
Legal experts said this week it was usually very difficult for private citizens to obtain warrants for war crimes.
Generally, British courts were reluctant to issue warrants for individuals who were not in Britain. Given the political realities, courts would be unlikely to touch cases involving American soldiers in Iraq, for instance.
C.J. Warbrick, a law professor at Durham University, said human rights groups had also faced the problem of keeping their legal efforts secret.
"They've found it very difficult indeed to get the prosecution started," he said. "In cases where it's a delicate political situation, suspects have been warned off and they've left the country."
Douglas McNabb, a lawyer from Texas who specializes in global criminal law, said the warrant for Almog had caused "a lot of heartburn internationally."
Although last September's warrant for Almog's arrest was dropped after he left the country, McNabb said the issuing of any new warrant would most likely confine Almog to Israel.
If he entered any of the 184 member countries of Interpol, there would be a strong legal compulsion for them to honor the British warrant and provisionally arrest him.
The Israeli Embassy in London said in a statement it had raised the issue with the British government because "politically motivated people are abusing the British Justice system for their own purposes."
Daniel Machover, one of the British lawyers representing the Palestinian human rights activists, said that although Britain's Attorney General retains the ultimate authority to decide which cases will be prosecuted, it was important that citizens remain able to ask for war crimes warrants.
The merits of the case should be judged on the evidence provided, not on what was politically expedient, he said.
"That's why it's such powerful weapon - it forces the state to make a high-profile decision based on the rule of law rather than politics."
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