Mon, Jul 14, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Belgium to alter war crimes law


Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt took office as head of a new center-left government Saturday that immediately agreed to replace a war crimes law which has soured Belgium's relations with the US.

In their first major decision after being sworn in by King Albert II, the 15 government ministers agreed to supplant the 1993 law which has been used to target leaders from the US, Britain, Israel and other nations.

"Changing the universal competence law is a priority of this government," Verhofstadt said.

Under the new bill, which is expected to be approved by parliament early next month, only cases with a direct link to Belgium will be considered, ruling out complaints like those filed after the Iraq war against British Prime Minister Tony Blair and leading American officials, beginning with US President George W. Bush.

Verhofstadt had promised to change the law after the Bush administration reacted angrily to such cases and threatened Brussels' role as NATO headquarters.

After the inaugural meeting of the new government, Verhofstadt said abuse of the law for political ends would not be tolerated. However he said cases where the victim or suspect were Belgian citizens or residents would stand.

The existing law allows Belgian courts to hear war crimes complaints regardless of where the events occurred or the nationality of those involved.

Previous changes allowing the Belgian authorities to quickly reject cases against officials from democratic governments had failed to calm American unease over the law.

The changes were in line with an agreement reached by the socialist and liberal parties in preparation for the formation of the new government.

Lawyers said then that cases lodged against Cuba's Fidel Castro or Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre could continue because they involved Belgian plaintiffs.

Verhofstadt unveiled his new ministerial team Saturday, almost two months since his liberals and their socialist allies were re-elected in a national ballot.

Several leading ministers in the previous government kept their posts, including Foreign Minister Louis Michel and Defense Minister Andre Flahaut, both outspoken critics of the US-led war on Iraq.

Finance Minister Didier Reynders was also reappointed, promising tax cuts to boost Belgium's flagging economy.

The absence of Green ministers is the main difference from the outgoing Verhofstadt government.

The new five-party coalition is formed by the liberal and socialist parties from Belgium's Dutch- and French-speaking regions, and a smaller Flemish regional party which has one minister.

There are five women ministers, including Laurette Onkelinx, appointed justice minister and one of four vice-premiers. The youngest member, Environment Minister Freya Van den Bossche, 28, is daughter of the outgoing health minister.

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