Wednesday March 26, 8:04 AM
Belgium amends law to avoid war crimes lawsuit against Bush
The Belgian parliament amended a controversial law to prevent US President George W. Bush being prosecuted for war crimes over the conflict in
The law allows Belgian courts to try suspects for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, regardless of where the alleged acts took place or
the nationality of the accused.
Under the amendment -- which the Belgian Senate must approve before it takes effect -- a federal prosecutor will decide in certain cases whether to
accept a suit filed under the so-called "universal competence" law.
This was one of the "filters" that lawmakers inserted into the law to prevent plaintiffs bringing "harebrained" lawsuits.
Critics of the law, including the United States, have warned Belgium that its role as host to international institutions like NATO and the European
Union, would be threatened if a war crimes suit were filed against Bush.
"It's a serious problem," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell, after he was named last week in a lawsuit for alleged crimes during the 1991
Gulf war along with former US president George Bush and current Vice President Dick Cheney.
"For a place that is an international center they should be a little bit concerned about this," Powell said.
The lawsuit against him was filed by seven Iraqi families over the bombing of a civilian shelter in Baghdad that killed 403 people on the night of
February 12-13, 1991.
Powell served as the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cheney as defense secretary during the 1991 Gulf war.
Some 30 current or former political leaders are facing action under the Belgian law, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafat and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
"I expect there to be, any day, a suit against President (George W.) Bush in Belgium," Herman De Croo, speaker of Belgium's lower house of
parliament, said earlier Tuesday.
Throughout the day, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt had hosted intense negotiations among political leaders from his ruling "rainbow" coalition to
discuss changes to the law.
Under the amendments passed, the prosecutor will decide if a lawsuit is valid if the alleged crime did not happen in Belgium; if the alleged
perpetrator is not Belgian or is not on Belgian territory; and if the victims are not Belgian or have not resided in Belgium for at least three
If one of these conditions applies, the lawsuit goes ahead automatically.
If none of the conditions apply, the Belgian justice minister can pass on the case to the country of the accused.
The amendments will affect only cases filed after July 1, 2002 -- like the one against Bush senior -- and only those where the country of the accused
has war crimes legislation.
Fears that a war crimes lawsuit over the Iraqi conflict could be brought against the current US president have further strained relations between the
United States and Belgium, which has been a fierce critic of the war on Iraq and was at the center of an unprecedented crisis at NATO over the
conflict last month.
The changes to the law came only a week before Belgium's parliament was due to be dissolved ahead of a general election scheduled for May 18.
According to parliamentary sources, the parties in the ruling coalition were divided over how to amend the law.
Verhofstadt's Liberals, backed by Flemish-speaking Socialists, had proposed a "diplomatic filter" allowing the government to pass on any cases to
the country where the alleged crimes took place, providing it is democratic.
Francophone Socialists and Greens feared that the law would be rendered toothless if the amendments were too radical.