French oil firm accused of complicity with military regime

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The French oil giant Total faces a renewed inquiry into claims that it was complicit in crimes against humanity committed by the military regime in Burma.

The federal prosecutor's office in Belgium has re-opened a five-year-old case brought by four Burmese refugees, who allege that France's largest company financed human rights violations and used forced labour supplied by the junta to build a gas pipeline in the 1990s. A preliminary court hearing is expected later this month, according to Alexis Deswaef, the Belgian lawyer acting for the refugees.

The Belgian government's decision, following a ruling by the country's constitutional court, is a further blow to Total as it struggles to defend its presence in Burma. Even the French government, which has defended Total's Burmese activities for years, has accepted recently that the oil giant could be vulnerable to new EU sanctions against the Burma regime and European companies operating there.

Total, the largest Western investor in Burma, built and operated a gas pipeline in a consortium with Burma's national oil company and the US group Unocal, now part of Chevron, to transport gas from fields in southern Burma to plants in neighbouring Thailand. Burmese opposition groups have for years alleged that Total – the world's fourth-largest oil company – was a major conduit for cash to the hardline military government but the complaint lodged in Belgium in 2002 goes much further than that.

The four refugees claim Total and its chief officers were complicit in the use of forced labour and torture by the Burmese army during and after the building of the £600m pipeline. Total admits it paid the Burmese army to "protect" the project but claims it had no direct evidence of human rights violations.

The plaintiffs say that the company provided not only cash to the Burmese regime but "military and logistic" help. Total must have known, the complainants say, that the army was enslaving and torturing the local population. The complaint targets Total as an institution as well as its chairman, Thierry Desmarest, and the former head of its Burmese operations, Hervé Madeo. Under Belgian law, alleged human rights violations can, in theory, be brought in Belgian courts against defendants from any country. This legislation was tightened in 2003 after a flood of global lawsuits threatened to clog up the judicial system.

As a result, the Burmese complaint was rejected by the supreme appeal court in 2005. Now, the constitutional court in Brussels has decided the case is valid after all. One of the Burmese plaintiffs is an officially recognised refugee in Belgium, giving him the same rights as Belgian citizens. Mr Deswaef said investigators would be given "material proof of the complicity of Total.