Muslims slam UK pledge to reform war crimes law

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 10:52 AM

Britain's flagship Muslim organization on Wednesday attacked a government pledge to reform a war crimes law used to try to arrest visiting Israeli dignitaries, saying the move could hurt Britain's image in the Middle East.

The Muslim Council of Britain said it was "deeply disappointed" that the country's foreign minister, David Miliband, promised to change the law so that judges could no longer issue secret arrest warrants against Israeli officials or military officers, saying the move was biased toward Israel.

"You appear to be committing the government to the path of selective compliance with the enforcement of international law," the council's Secretary General Muhammad Abdul Bari wrote in a letter to Miliband. "This is surely not in the best interests of our country as it will add a further dimension to the double standards that our government is seen to have in relation to the politics of the Middle East."

Britain is one of the European pioneers of universal jurisdiction, a broad legal concept that empowers judges to issue arrest warrants for nearly any visitor accused of committing war crimes anywhere in the world. Spain and Belgium have similar rules.

Because ministers and heads of state tend to enjoy immunity, pro-Palestinian activists in Britain and elsewhere have often set their sights on former Israeli officials _ most recently targeting Tzipi Livni, who served as foreign minister at the time of Israel's attack a year ago on the Gaza Strip.

The winter offensive, aimed at ending rocket strikes in Israel, claimed more than 1,400 Palestinian lives, among them hundreds of civilians, and drew a storm of international criticism. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

Israelis were outraged and British government officials embarrassed when it emerged last week that a London judge had issued an arrest warrant for Livni on suspicion of involvement in war crimes.

The warrant was later withdrawn when it became clear Livni would not come to the country, but the matter badly strained relations between Britain and the Jewish state.

Israeli President Shimon Peres demanded that Britain change the law, saying that British officials had "promised they would fix this and it is time that they do so."

Miliband has that the British government is determined to put an end the threat of arrest hanging over visitors of Livni's stature, explaining that Israeli leaders needed to be able to travel freely to Britain if U.K.-Israeli relations were to endure.

The Muslim Council urged Miliband to reconsider.

"Justice and fairness is not served by being or by being seen to be partisan and compliant to demands made by one major player in the conflict," it said.

Calls seeking comment from Britain's Foreign Office and its Ministry of Justice were not immediately returned.