Belgium reels from `Italian connection'

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POOR Belgium. Its dirty linen is being washed in public again. Still reeling from the Dutroux child murders and the sickening revelations of how that investigation was bungled, a sordid corruption trial looks set to shatter what little remains of Belgians' confidence in their state, or of this demoralised nation's standing in Europe.

With its reputation assured as a haven for hideous paedophile criminals who murder little girls under the nose of the police, Belgium is now to be officially branded the Italy of the north. Months of testimony will dish out the grimy evidence behind allegations that senior figures in the Socialist party, both French and Dutch speaking, accepted massive bribes from Italian and French companies in return for lucrative defence contracts.

After years of seemingly fruitless investigation and intrigue, 12 men, including the former Nato secretary general, Willy Claes, three other ex-ministers and one of France's best known businessmen, Serge Dassault, finally appeared in the dock on Wednesday. Much more than their individual fates, or even the future of the ruling coalition, is at stake. The "trial of the century" is being seen as a necessary evil by the citizens of a country brought low by scandal after scandal.

Alongside "the dirty dozen" in the dock is the entire political class and the endemically corrupt system in which they are seen to operate. Ordinary Belgians already know much of what will be told to the Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) about alleged backhanders, secret bank accounts, Panamanian front companies and greedy men. But this time they want to see punishment meted out. That at least would offer the hope of redemption for a nation which promotes itself as the crossroads of Europe and the heart of the European Union, but seems unable to function as a normal democracy.

Equating Belgium with Italy in the crime and corruption league may seem fanciful, but there are parallels. It is not for nothing that Liege, where most of Belgium's Italian community lives, the heartland of Walloon socialism and the seedbed of the Agusta-Dassault affair, is nicknamed Palermo-sur-Meuse.

The Agusta-Dassault bribery scandal came to light after Andre Cools, the former Socialist deputy prime minister and the popular boss of a local political fiefdom, was shot dead by a contract killer as he left his mistress's apartment. The theory is that Cools, angry at being left out of bribes from Agusta, the Italian helicopter manufacturer, was silenced before he could blow the whistle.

Many of the shadowy figures who came to police attention during the investigations have Italian names. Cools's Tunisian hitman may have been recruited by the Sicilian mafia and the investigation into the killing at one point led investigators to Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former Italian prime minister. Agusta, the Italian firm at the centre of the trial, also came under investigation during the "tangentopoli" scandal in Italy.

The Cools murder remains unsolved; the Supreme Court is now being asked to rule only on whether huge contracts awarded to Agusta and to the French aerospace company Dassault in the late 1980s were a payoff for bribes worth more than pounds 2m. The defendants, who are accused of "passive corruption", deny any wrongdoing and point out that it was perfectly legal at the time to donate money to party funds.

Before the Dutroux affair Belgians might have shrugged their shoulders at all of this. They have lived through many scandals and have rarely seen the culprits brought to justice. The Pinon affair in the 1980s revealed a vice network which implicated senior police, businessmen and politicians. There is the still unsolved mystery of the Brabant supermarket killers, who carried out a series of atrocities between 1982 and 1985. Dutroux has yet to go on trial, and none of the bungling police or magistrates in that case have been punished.

Now that Agusta-Dassault has come before the courts, people are impatient for answers and for retribution. But as this is Belgium, one cannot rule out that they will get neither.