The visiting Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, was on Wednesday at the centre of a high legal drama following a bid by Palestinian rights campaigners to have him arrested over allegations of war crimes highlighted in a recent U.N. report on Israel’s controversial military attack on Gaza last December.
A court, while noting that the allegations were well-documented, rejected the plea for his arrest on grounds that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity from legal prosecution as he was visiting Britain on official business.
“I am satisfied that under customary international law Mr. Barak has immunity from prosecution as he would not be able to perform his functions efficiently if he were subject of criminal proceedings in this jurisdiction,” said Deputy district judge Daphne Wickham after a hearing at the City of Westminster’s Magistrates’ Court.
The ruling followed prolonged legal wrangling during which the Foreign Office was reportedly asked to clarify Mr. Barak’s status in the U.K.
Lawyers for petitioners expressed disappointment saying that they did not accept that immunity should apply for “this type of crime”.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced criticism for welcoming Mr. Barak to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign called it a “disgrace”.
“As a high contracting party to the Geneva Convention, the British government should be arresting Barak for war crimes, not treating him to dinner,” said its secretary-general Becky Hunter.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband defended the decision to invite Mr. Barak.
“He is the democratically elected Defence Minister of Israel and I will be pleased to meet him,” he said.
In 2005, Doron Almog, a retired Israeli General accused of war crimes, avoided arrest by staying on his plane at Heathrow airport after being told that police were waiting to arrest him.