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[casi] Belgium: government seeks to block war crimes case against US General Tommy Franks

Belgium: government seeks to block war crimes case against US General Tommy

By Richard Tyler
20 May 2003

The Belgian government has intervened to block a war crimes case against US
General Tommy Franks. The lawsuit, lodged with the federal prosecutor's
office in Brussels on May 14, accuses Franks of being responsible for war
crimes carried out during the US war against Iraq.

Jan Fermon, the lawyer acting for the 19 plaintiffs, told the World
Socialist Web Site, "One of the main groups of charges is that US forces
fired at and bombed civilian targets. We are not speaking here about what is
generally called 'collateral damage.' It doesn't involve people who were
simply too close to a military target. It involved deliberate attacks on
civilians, as distinct from what is generally called collateral damage.

"Another charge is that US forces attacked the press, and specifically the
offices of Al Jazeera. The case clearly shows this was a deliberate attack.
There were several attacks on press offices and on the Palestine Hotel,
where journalists were staying. It was a coordinated attack on the press.
The attack on the Al Jazeera offices was carried out by a tank-buster plane;
it was very deliberate and specifically aimed at the Al Jazeera offices."

(See: Interview with Jan Fermon)

Fermon, who also acted in the 2001 Rwanda war crimes trial-the first (and
only) successful prosecution under Belgium's "universal jurisdiction" law,
said that military chiefs were obliged to stop war crimes. As
commander-in-chief, General Franks was responsible for the way in which his
men acted on the ground.

The lawsuit against Franks details five particular war crimes: the
deliberate bombing of civilian neighbourhoods; attacks on the press (in
particular the killing of an Al Jazeera journalist); the use of cluster
bombs against civilians; the targeting of medical personnel and
infrastructure; and not acting to prevent looting.

Moving rapidly to try to quash the case, a spokesperson for Belgian Prime
Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that an extraordinary cabinet meeting would be
convened this week "permitting us to invoke the new law of universal
jurisdiction, putting a stop to the legal action against General Franks."

Belgium first enacted the law of "universal jurisdiction" in 1993, enabling
Belgian courts to hear cases involving war crimes and crimes against
humanity even if they were committed abroad and did not involve Belgian

After a number of high-profile lawsuits were filed citing the "universal
jurisdiction" law, most recently against George Bush Snr. and Colin Powell
for actions during the first Gulf War in 1991, the Belgian government passed
an amendment in April 2003 effectively gutting the law.

The amended law makes it much harder to bring a case where neither the
victim, plaintiff or the accused are Belgian. In contravention of the
democratic norm separating the powers of the executive and judiciary, as it
now stands, the law allows the Belgian government to intervene directly in
cases and refer them to another jurisdiction-either that of the accused, the
victims or an international court.

Jan Fermon had filed a suit on behalf of 17 Iraqis and 2 Jordanians accusing
General Franks of war crimes. The case is based in part on testimony
collected by members of Brussels-based Médecine pour le Tiers Monde
(Medicine for the Third World), who were in Baghdad between March 16 and
April 22 and who recorded video statements from eyewitnesses and the
relatives of civilians killed in US attacks. Dr Colette Moulaert and Dr
Geert Van Moorter also accuse coalition forces of deliberately targeting
medical facilities and ambulances.

Fermon told Radio Free Liberty, "Again and again, they were asked by the
victims and their families and the medical personnel with whom they were
working if there was any possibility to hold someone accountable for these
very serious human and civilian casualties. So that's why the doctors
finally asked me to find out if there was any possibility to get an
independent inquiry on this because that's the first objective of this, to
get an independent investigation, and to eventually establish through this
investigation responsibilities and in some way to get the case to justice."

The lawsuit immediately unleashed a trans-Atlantic political storm, as US
administration officials and senior military figures pressed the Belgian
government to quash the case, under threat of "diplomatic consequences,"
according to BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb.

Brussels daily Le Soir quoted State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker
saying that the US "certainly expects the Belgian government to take the
necessary steps to reject this legal action."

General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "It's
looked upon by the US government as a very, very serious situation... and it
could clearly have an impact on where we gather," implying that it could
make Belgium a no-go area for NATO meetings.

Echoing Washington, Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt and Foreign Minister
Louis Michel called the case a "political abuse" of the law of universal

Fermon told the WSWS, "All court cases related to international events like
war or international terrorism are political, in that way. The problem is to
find some way to get accountability and justice for the victims, that is the
main aim of the lawsuit."

The case cites more than a dozen specific incidents violating international
law, including:

* The deliberate use of firearms and bombing against unarmed civilians. One
plaintiff accuses US soldiers of targeting them as they attempted to buy
bread on April 15.

* Assaults on members of the press, in particular the attack on the offices
of Al Jazeera in which journalist Tariq Ayoub was killed on April 8.

* The use of cluster bombs in civilian areas. Several plaintiffs report
children being wounded by these munitions lying in the street.

* Attacks on medical personnel and institutions. The lawsuit cites three
separate attacks on Iraqi ambulances. One plaintiff accuses US forces of
attacking an ambulance transferring the wounded to Al Kindi hospital on
April 9, and another of killing two pregnant women being taken to hospital
in an ambulance on April 7; the third ambulance was targeted on April 9 as
it entered the Al Liqa'a hospital.

* Allowing the plundering of civilian and cultural institutions. The suit
cites the Al Beit Al Iraqi cultural centre in Baghdad being plundered,
although American tanks were closely monitoring the area.

The Belgian federal prosecutor's office must decide within one month if
there is a case to answer. However, Federal Prosecutor Serge Brammertz
announced last Friday May 16 that in his opinion the suit should not be
heard in Belgium.

Washington has clearly exerted maximum pressure on Belgium to ensure that no
US military leader faces trial for war crimes in the Belgian courts, which,
given American refusal to submit to the International Criminal Tribunal in
The Hague, is the only jurisdiction where such a charge could presently be

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