War Crimes Suits Filed In
Belgium Against Bush, Blair


BRUSSELS (AFP) - US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been accused of war crimes in Iraq under a fiercely contested Belgian law, the government here said.

But the justice ministry said the Belgian cabinet had referred the cases against Bush, Blair and six other high-ranking officials to the US and British governments, making any trials highly unlikely.

Nevertheless the lawsuits, brought under Belgium's "universal competence law", could well deepen tensions between Washington and Brussels, which bitterly opposed the war in Iraq.

The 10-year-old law gives Belgium's courts the right to judge anyone accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, regardless of where the crime took place.

Apart from Bush and Blair, the officials named in the suits were US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld's deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Attorney General John Ashcroft, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and General Tommy Franks, who led US forces in Iraq.

Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice and Wolfowitz were additionally accused over the US-led campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime.

A Belgian justice ministry spokesman declined to say who had filed the lawsuits or the precise nature of the charges.

The ministry said it received the suits from Belgium's federal prosecution service on Wednesday.

But the Belgian cabinet quickly passed them on to US and British authorities, in line with a precedent set last month when US military officials including General Franks were accused under the law of war crimes in Iraq.

A recent revision to the universal competence law by the Belgian parliament allowed such a move where the accused is not Belgian and his or her country has adequate war crimes legislation in place.

The amendment was designed to prevent "frivolous" cases.

"The fact that a decision was taken by the cabinet within 24 hours shows that this filter works," foreign ministry spokesman Patrick Herman told AFP.

Last week Rumsfeld said, however, that Belgium would face consequences unless it ditched the law, which he branded "absurd".

He warned that US officials would shun the country, and announced that US funding for a new NATO headquarters in Brussels, which is also home to the European Union, would be suspended in the meantime.

Rumsfeld was backed by British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who said the Belgian law was a matter of "great concern".

The Belgian government is seeking to deflect the storm of international criticism of the law, under which suits have also been brought against Israeli officials including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Outgoing Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said Wednesday he wanted to circumvent the dispute by extending diplomatic immunity to all official visitors to international bodies on Belgian territory.

"We want everyone who wants to visit the headquarters of international organisations in Brussels to be able to do so without any problems," said Verhofstadt, who is trying to put together a new coalition government after winning elections last month.

So far the only convictions under the Belgian law have been those of four Rwandans found guilty in 2001 of taking part in the 1994 genocide in their homeland, which left upwards of one million people dead.

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