‘Criminal complaints’ filed against Israeli President Herzog in Switzerland

Swiss prosecutor confirmed the filing but would not reveal details about the nature and number of the complaints.

Israel's President Isaac Herzog,
Israel's President Isaac Herzog, left, attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week [Markus Schreiber/AP]

Israeli President Isaac Herzog is the subject of criminal complaints during his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Swiss prosecutors have confirmed, as Israel finds itself accused of committing war crimes in Gaza.

“The criminal complaints will be examined according to the usual procedure,” the Office of the Swiss Attorney General said on Friday, adding that it would contact the Swiss foreign ministry to examine the question of immunity of the individual concerned.

In theory, third countries do not hold criminal jurisdiction over current heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers of other countries.

The reasons behind the complaints and who filed them were not specified.

A spokesperson for Herzog’s office did not comment on the statement by Swiss prosecutors, saying only that Herzog had been to Davos to present Israel’s position on the situation in Gaza.

The AFP news agency obtained a statement allegedly issued by the people behind the complaint, entitled “Legal Action Against Crimes Against Humanity”. It said several unnamed individuals had filed charges with federal prosecutors and with cantonal authorities in Basel, Bern and Zurich.

The statement said the plaintiffs were seeking a criminal prosecution in parallel to a case brought before the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) by South Africa, which has accused Israel of genocide in its offensive in Gaza.

While it could take years for the ICJ to produce a final verdict, South Africa asked the court to instruct “provisional measures” – a temporary order for Israel to stop the war – while the case is pending.

Israel has called South Africa’s accusations “baseless” and a “blood libel”.

Universal Jurisdiction

The reasons behind the complaints filed to the Swiss prosecutor are unclear, said Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays. They could relate to something that took place in Switzerland while Herzog attended the Davos summit, he explained, or they could relate to previous statements Herzog made about Palestinians, which were also cited by South Africa’s legal team at the Hague while presenting their case.

Days after October 7 – when Hamas fighters launched an unprecedented attack into southern Israel killing nearly 1,200 people – the Israeli president said it was not only Hamas fighters but “an entire nation” that was responsible for the violence and that Israel would fight “until we break their backbone”.

After the Hamas attack, Israel launched a ferocious bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 24,500 people, 70 percent of whom are women and children, according to the United Nations.

If prosecuted, such a case filed to the Swiss court would be dealt with under “universal jurisdiction”, William Shabas, a professor of international criminal and human rights law at Middlesex University in the UK, told Al Jazeera.

Under international law, universal jurisdiction is based on the principle that certain crimes are so serious that their perpetrators must be prosecuted transcending borders. This means that states or international organisations can file legal complaints against people regardless of their nationality or where the alleged crime was committed. Such cases are usually related to international crimes.

“It used to be extremely rare for this to happen but more and more, particularly in European countries, there is an effort to prosecute such crimes – the crime of genocide, war crimes, and so on, using universal jurisdiction,” Shabas said.

“The obstacle would be the alleged immunity of a president of a country – that is going to be a real problem,” he added.

Addressing the issue of immunity, the statement seen by AFP suggested that it could be lifted “in certain circumstances”, including in cases of alleged crimes against humanity, adding that “these conditions are met in this case”.

Another obstacle for the prosecutor to proceed, Shabas said, would be obtaining “a level of political approval”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies