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theguardian: Israeli minister Tzipi Livni given diplomatic immunity for UK visit

UK government awards ‘special mission’ status to head-off would-be arrest warrant sought for alleged war crimes in Gaza

Israel’s justice minister Tzipi Livni. Photograph: Reuters

The British government has granted temporary diplomatic immunity
to a prominent Israeli politician ahead of a visit to the UK this week
to protect her against arrest and potential prosecution for alleged
breaches of international law, including war crimes.

The Foreign Office confirmed "special mission" status – effectively, diplomatic immunity – has been granted to Tzipi Livni, Israel‘s justice minister and lead negotiator in recent peace talks, who will meet Foreign Office ministers in London.

"Since
the visit meets all the essential elements for a special mission, and
for avoidance of any doubt on the matter, the FCO has confirmed consent
to the visit as a special mission," the FCO said.

The move comes
amid efforts to secure a warrant for Livni’s arrest by London lawyers
Hickman and Rose, acting on behalf of a relative of a Palestinian killed
in the bombing of a police compound on the first day of Israel’s
military assault on Gaza, which began in December 2008.

Working
with the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), the law
firm requested the CPS to advise police to arrest Livni for suspected
war crimes, and to liaise with the attorney general to approve criminal
charges.

Raji Sourani, PCHR director, said he was very
disappointed at the government’s decision given that a British judge
decided in December 2009 that there was sufficient evidence to justify
Livni’s arrest over the three-week Israeli military assault on Gaza.

"As
the lawyers for the victims of widespread suspected Israeli war crimes,
PCHR is very concerned that these kind of political acts endorse the
‘rule of the jungle’ rather than the ‘rule of law’," he said.

"The
[UK government’s] stated policy of ‘ending impunity for international
crimes’ can only be properly pursued if the rule of law and due process
is allowed to prevail, rather than Britain giving a safe haven to
suspected war criminals, even for a few hours," Sourani said.

An
application on behalf of a private individual for an arrest warrant for
Livni was received by the Director of Public Prosecutions last month.
But on Monday the CPS was informed that Livni had been granted special
mission immunity. "In accordance with established case law, this means
that a magistrates’ court would be bound to refuse any application for
an arrest and as such the DPP is not able to consider any application in
relation to this individual," said a CPS spokesperson.

It is the
second time diplomatic immunity has been granted to Livni when visiting
the UK. In October 2011 she was granted special mission status after the
CPS received an application for an arrest warrant for alleged war
crimes.

In December 2009 Livni cancelled a visit to London after an arrest warrant was issued by Westminster magistrates court.
The British government later changed the law on "universal
jurisdiction" to require prior approval from the DPP before an arrest
warrant in connection with international war crimes could be issued.
Previously, citizens could apply directly to a judge for an arrest
warrant.

The granting of immunity to Livni comes amid growing
concern over the government’s issuing of special mission status, and the
secrecy surrounding such moves. A special mission is "a temporary
mission, representing a state, which is sent by one state to another
with the consent of the latter, in order to carry out official
engagements on behalf of the sending state", the foreign secretary,
William Hague, told MPs in March 2013.

But the government has
refused to disclose details. In response to parliamentary questions
tabled by the shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter, last month, the
Foreign Office minister, Mark Simmonds, said: "In view of the
confidentiality of diplomatic exchanges, we have no plans to publish
further details about requests that have been granted or refused."

Applications
took into consideration the "obligations incumbent upon the UK under
customary international law and our policy of ending impunity for the
most serious of international crimes and a commitment to the protection
of human rights," he added.

Critics say the judicial system is
being bypassed, and that the granting of immunity circumvents the UK’s
obligations under international law.

The government’s refusal to
disclose details of special mission requests was outrageous, Slaughter
said. "This prevents proper public scrutiny. Diplomacy should not
override the legitimate role of the courts."

Last year, two other
high-profile Israelis – Benny Gantz, the Israeli military chief of
staff, and Doron Almog, a retired major general – were granted special
mission status for visits to the UK.

At the time, the PCHR said:
"Credible evidence exists indicating Mr Gantz’s involvement in the
commission of war crimes: these allegations should be investigated and,
if appropriate, Mr Gantz should be prosecuted. He should not be
preemptively granted immunity by the UK government, circumventing normal
criminal justice procedures." Gantz was suspected of war crimes over
Israel’s eight-day military assault on Gaza in November 2012, according
to PCHR.

Almog cancelled last year’s UK visit despite being
granted immunity. In February 2008 the former military officer refused
to disembark from a plane at Heathrow after he was tipped off that an arrest warrant had been issued by a British court. He stayed on board until the plane took off for Tel Aviv two hours later.

The
UK promised Israel it would change the law to make it harder to secure
arrest warrants for Israeli public figures. In an address to the Israeli
parliament last month, David Cameron said: "When I was in opposition, I
spoke out when – because of the law on universal jurisdiction – senior
Israelis could not safely come to my country without fear of
ideologically motivated court cases and legal stunts; when I became
prime minister, I legislated to change it. My country is open to you and
you are welcome to visit any time."

Livni played a key role in
Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli name given to its military onslaught on
Gaza in 2008-09. Of around 1,400 Palestinian deaths, most were
civilians according to human rights groups. Israel says 1,166
Palestinians died and that most were combatants. Thirteen Israelis were
killed.

Livni declined to comment on her legal status in the UK.

Sarah
Colborne of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign said: "It is an outrage
that the British government appears to have offered Tzipi Livni
immunity from prosecution for the gravest of offences – war crimes …
Livni may be desperately trying to run, and hide, from justice. But she
should know that you can’t evade justice for war crimes – and there is
no expiry date. Tzipi Livni can’t rely on getting ‘get out of jail free’
cards every time she travels overseas."

Livni’s trip to London
this week coincides with a visit by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud
Abbas, towho will meet the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to discuss
the breakdown in peace negotiations and the recent reconciliation
between rival Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas. The US
has threatened to withhold funding from the Palestinian Authority if
unity with Hamas – designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington –
advances.

"While the door remains open to a peace process, the
purpose of the meeting is to discuss our ongoing relationship with the
Palestinians," the state department said on Monday.

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