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Last Updated: Monday, 23 June, 2003, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Belgium to curb war crimes law
Guy Verhofstadt
Verhofstaft denies Belgium is giving in to US pressure
The Belgian Government plans to reduce the scope of war crimes legislation which has led to charges against US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair among others.

The US Government has indicated it will press for the transfer of Nato headquarters from Brussels unless the 10-year-old legislation is changed.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said late on Sunday he intended to modify the law so that either the defendant or the victim in a war crimes case must be a Belgian national or resident.

US President George W Bush, General Tommy Franks and other top officials - over 2003 Iraq War
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - over 2003 Iraq War
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon - over 1982 refugee massacre
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - over 1973 murders by militant group Black September
Former US President George Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell - over 1991 Gulf War
Belgian FM Louis Michel - over arms sales to Nepal
Cuban leader Fidel Castro - over alleged crimes against humanity
Deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein - over alleged crimes against humanity

Under the existing law, charges can be laid in a Belgian court against foreign nationals for alleged war crimes committed outside Belgian jurisdiction.

Papers were filed last week charging President Bush and Mr Blair with war crimes in Iraq.

Similar action has been taken - though suspended - against the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, over the killing of Palestinians while he commanded Israeli forces in Lebanon in 1982.

An initial agreement to pass the amendment was reached on Saturday by the Liberal and Socialist parties, which are expected to form a ruling coalition following elections in May.

The bill is expected to be approved by parliament once the new government is formed.

Mr Verhofstadt denied that Belgium was giving in to US demands.

"It is not US pressure," he said. "The reason why we have modified it... is really because we want to keep the law."

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Rumsfeld announced a freeze on building at Nato headquarters
There has been no US reaction to the decision, although human rights groups said Belgium had gone too far in curtailing the law.

"It is regrettable that under irrational pressure from the United States the Belgian Government is renouncing fundamental principles," said Human Rights Watch official Reed Brody.

"Our reaction is a mixed one; they (the Belgian Government) managed to salvage something, but too many concessions were made to the United States."

Belgium has already amended the 1993 law once this year, making it possible to send cases to a defendant's country if it were deemed to be capable of giving them a fair trial.

But the move failed to stop more cases being filed, prompting US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - himself a target of the law - to announce a freeze on spending on Nato's new headquarters in Brussels until the legal threat against US leaders was withdrawn.

A suggestion last week by Belgian leaders that diplomatic immunity would be granted to foreign officials visiting international organisations based in Belgium also appears to have failed to satisfy US demands.

The BBC's Patrick Bartlett
"It was the war in Iraq which turned an obscure Belgian law into a diplomatic battlefield"

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06 Apr 03  |  Europe

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