BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgium said Saturday it has decided to scrap a controversial war crimes law which has seen cases launched against President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said his new government, sworn in Saturday, has decided as one of its first acts to scrap the law which has angered the United States.
He told a news conference the move was aimed at preventing abuses of the law, which has also seen a case launched against British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“I think we have definitely solved this question,” Verhofstadt said, hours after his government had been sworn in by King Albert II.
The 1993 law gave Belgian courts the power to try war crimes cases no matter where they were committed.
In future, the right to launch cases would be restricted to Belgians or people resident in the country. All cases apart from those involving Belgians would be dropped, he said.
The norms of international immunity would also be respected. Any cases that were launched would take into account Belgium’s agreements with NATO allies and other European Union members.
The law got Belgium into all kinds of trouble.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said Washington would be reluctant to send U.S. officials to Brussels for meetings at NATO headquarters and that it was opposed to any further spending on a new alliance headquarters.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who angered Washington with his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq, was also caught by the law as he was accused by an opposition party of illegally authorizing arms shipments to strife-torn Nepal.
Michel, who has stayed in the new government, denied that it was U.S. pressure which had provoked the government’s move.
“This was abused by some people who wanted to damage other people, leaders and partners. Those who forced us to change the law are those who abused the law,” he told VRT television.
Belgium had already taken steps to soften the law, such as allowing cases be forwarded to a defendant’s country if the country was democratic and could handle the suit properly.
Such was the fate of the cases launched against Bush and Blair over the war in Iraq. But U.S. officials had said it was better if such suits never came up in the first place.
The case against Sharon, filed by survivors of a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Lebanese Christian militias, was suspended as the court decided he had immunity as a leader who was still in office.
Verhofstadt’s move is aimed at definitively narrowing the scope for war crimes cases with its strict rules on the need for a Belgian or someone resident in the country to file a case.
He mentioned three suits that would proceed, all involving Belgians. These were in Guatemala, Chad and Rwanda.
It was Belgium’s prosecution of two Rwandan nuns on genocide charges in 2001 as the first application of the law which prompted a flood of other suits.