`Innocent' Briton arrested in Belgium for smuggling

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A BRITISH lorry driver is being held in a Belgian jail accused of smuggling, despite already being cleared by British Customs of the same charges.

Eddy Bellfield, 44, from Canterbury, Kent, who is due to appear in a Bruges court today, was arrested in Belgium at the request of the German authorities for his alleged involvement in an international cigarette- smuggling ring.

But his lawyers claim that Customs and Excise had already eliminated Mr Bellfield during an investigation into smuggling in Germany, Switzerland and Britain.

Mr Bellfield is the third Briton to have been detained under questionable circumstances by Belgium in the past few months. The cases have generated concern among British lawyers about the number of miscarriages of justice in Belgium involving UK citizens.

Last week Bridget Seisay, 30, from east London, was acquitted at the Court of Appeal in Brussels after spending eight months in jail wrongly convicted of trafficking in people. Her prosecution and imprisonment had been branded racist by civil rights organisations and lawyers in Britain.

Michael Wheeler, another lorry driver, was released last month after he had his sentence for drug smuggling substantially reduced. He was mistakenly linked to a gang of drug smugglers who had been driving behind his lorry. It was alleged that Flemish police beat him up and made him answer questions spoken in Flemish, which he did not understand; his answers then incriminated him.

Stephen Jakobi, of Fair Trials Abroad, said Customs and Excise had already decided to take no further action over the allegations levelled at Mr Bellfield. He said a Customs and Excise investigation in 1996 led to the arrest of several British lorry drivers involved in a plot to evade duty on cigarettes. Mr Jakobi said that Mr Bellfield gave a witness statement for use in the trial, in effect eliminating him from inquiries. But in April when he returned to Belgium on a routine trip for his employers he was arrested and now faces extradition to Germany where he is charged with the same offences that British Customs investigated.

Mr Jakobi, who has worked on behalf of all three Britons, claimed that these cases have showed up serious flaws in the Belgium criminal justice system.

He said miscarriages of justice were common in Belgium because very junior judges, who are politically appointed on low salaries, preside over serious cases. "Some of them don't even understand the first principal of the European Convention of Human Rights which is that the prosecution must prove its case," he said.