Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Belgium's leaders move to repeal war crimes legislation

AFP , BRUSSELS

In office only a day on Sunday, the new Belgian government lost no time in limiting the scope of a controversial law that allowed people like US President George W. Bush to be sued in Belgian courts for war crimes.

Yielding to US pressure, the government's first decision after being sworn in was to repeal a law that gave Belgian courts the right to judge anyone accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, regardless of the suspect's nationality or where the crime took place.

New legislation will take its place but it will only apply to Belgian nationals or persons resident in Belgium, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said.

The 1993 "universal competence" law became a diplomatic minefield for Belgium as cases were brought against more than 30 foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Senior US officials threatened to block funding for the new headquarters of NATO in Brussels unless the law was repealed while Israel withdrew its ambassador earlier this year in protest over the suit against Sharon.

The US refused to comment on Belgium's decision to scrap the law.

"We are aware that the Belgian Council of Ministers has approved a new draft bill on the subject. We look forward to studying the text of this draft legislation. It is premature to comment," a US state department spokeswoman said.

Israel meanwhile strongly welcomed the move.

"We cannot fail to be happy at the disappearance of this judicial aberration," an Israeli government spokesman said in Jerusalem, while adding that Israel would wait for the law's definitive abrogation before responding officially.

Human rights groups, however, deplored the decision.

"We are saddened and shocked," said Geraldine Mattioli from the Brussels office of the US rights group Human Rights Watch.

"Human Rights Watch regrets enormously that Belgium has given in to pressure from the United States," she added.

"What saddens me is that, with all the political pressure from the United States and Israel, we have completely forgotten the original point of the law, which was to render justice to the victims of horrible crimes," she stressed.

"These crimes are so horrible that they are beyond understanding and, as such, concern the whole of humanity so that we do not need to be directly involved to be affected by these crimes," Mattioli explained.

But the law was widely subverted from its original purpose and the US was outraged by suits against Bush and General Tommy Franks, the retired commander of US forces in Iraq, for their role in the Iraq war.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it made no sense to build a new NATO headquarters building in Brussels if officials could not go there for fear of arrest.

Blair was also sued over the Iraq war while Sharon faced claims over the Shabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982, when he was Israeli defense minister.

Other leaders caught in the sights of Belgian judges were former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Cuba's President Fidel Castro, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and several African leaders.

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