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UK alters law targeting war crimes suspects

Associated Press / September 16, 2011

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LONDON - Britain amended a law yesterday to make it tougher for ordinary citizens or activist groups to get arrest warrants against suspected war criminals or torturers - a move that angered some human rights lawyers and activists.

Britain’s universal jurisdiction law allows British courts to prosecute foreigners accused of crimes against humanity, no matter where the alleged crimes were committed. The principle of the law is rooted in the belief that certain crimes - such as genocide, hostage-taking, and torture - are so serious that they must be addressed anywhere it is possible to do so.

Under the amendment ratified yesterday, private citizens can still pursue arrest warrants, but the government’s chief prosecutor must approve them. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the change will ensure that “the balance is struck between ensuring those who are accused of such heinous crimes do not escape justice and that universal jurisdiction cases are only proceeded with on the basis of solid evidence.’’

In the past, attempts have been made to obtain warrants to arrest visiting foreign dignitaries such as China’s trade minister, Bo Xilai, and Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and an Israeli opposition leader.

The threat of arrest has strained diplomatic relations between Britain and Israel.

Last year, Livni Dan Meridor, Israel’s deputy prime minister, canceled trips to Britain, fearing arrest.

Some human rights lawyers disagreed with the change, saying it could keep real criminals from seeing justice.

“This marks a backward, nervous step by the UK, which is reluctant to bring tyrants and torturers to justice if it suits the government to sell them arms or to turn a blind eye to their human rights violations,’’ said Geoffrey Robertson, who as a UN appeals judge delivered key decisions on war crimes.

“No district court judge would issue an arrest warrant lightly,’’ he said.

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