Belgian MPs vote to send Claes for trial

SARAH HELM

Brussels

Willy Claes is expected to resign today as Nato Secretary-General, after the Belgian parliament voted to send him for trial on charges of corruption, fraud and forgery. After the former Belgian minister pleaded his innocence in person, the parliament voted by 97-52 in favour of lifting his immunity.

Last night's decision, which clearly came as a shock to Mr Claes, will lead almost certainly to his swift resignation from his Nato post. Leaders of the alliance had maintained a public show of support for Mr Claes, but that is now certain to ebb.The majority in favour of lifting immunity reflected the growing public concern in Belgium about the damage the affair is doing to the credibility of Belgian politics as well as to Nato. Alliance leaders have made clear that if the Belgian parliament decided to send Mr Claes for trial his position would become untenable.

The announcement of a successor is sure to swift, given the tasks which face Nato in the immediate future. It is planning to send a big peace force to the former Yugoslavia. The two candidates being considered for the Nato post are Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, former Danish foreign minister and Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch prime minister. Britain has no particular preference, according to sources, but views neither candidate as particularly outstanding.

Early indications were that the vote would go against Mr Claes. "You'll hear more about it tomorrow,'' he said last night when asked, after his 90-minute appearance before parliament, if he would stay on in the Nato post. He reaffirmed his innocence: "I had the opportunity to develop ... all arguments which are in my favour and which indicate clearly that I am totally innocent."

One MP said: "At times he was serene. At other times he was emotional. He left a lonely man. There was no applause, only stony silence." As the hearing got under way, ambassadors at Nato headquarters were meeting Russian envoys in the absence of their Secretary-General, whom they could watch on television arriving at the Belgian parliament flanked by his lawyers.

Some alliance leaders were trying to play down the embarrassment, suggesting there was still some hope the parliament would not send Mr Claes for trial, and he could continue in his Nato job. But it was clear his fate rested in the hands of the parliament, where the vote was likely to be influenced as much by party politics and personal point-scoring as by impartial assessment of the evidence.

Before the 150-member lower house was the recommendation of the parliamentary commission which examined the evidence against Mr Claes and called on the full parliament to lift his immunity from prosecution, a privilege bestowed on ministers and former ministers. Mr Claes is accused of knowing about money paid to the Flemish Socialist Party in 1988, when he was economics minister, by Agusta, the Italian defence contractor. The evidence is apparently not overwhelming but inconsistencies in his testimony are likely to be enough to bring him to trial.

Only the Flemish Socialists, part of Belgium's coalition government, were expected to vote in favour of Mr Claes. Even some younger Socialists were thought likely to vote against their former minister, on grounds that it is time to clean the image of the party. Mr Claes ruined any hope of winning votes from Christian Democrats, the second party in the government, following a row with the party in his local area of Limburg.

Before the vote, commentators said Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Prime Minister, and leader of the Christian Democrats, would want to lance the "Agusta boil" from the Belgian political scene by encouraging his party to vote to send Mr Claes for trial. The minority far-right parties in Belgium were also thought certain to vote against Mr Claes, as were the Flemish and French-speaking Liberals.

As MPs gathered for the secret debate, their mood was also influenced by opinion polls, published yesterday in the Belgian press, which showed that nine out of 10 Belgians thought Mr Claes should resign from Nato. Most thought the affair was damaging Belgium's image

THE WILLY CLAES AFFAIR

DEC

1988

The Belgian coalition government agrees to buy 46 army helicopters from Agusta, the Italian defence contractor. Willy Claes, a Flemish Socialist, was economics minister at the time. JUL 1991 Andre Cools, a Francophone Socialist minister of state, is shot dead in Liege. Investigation of his murder uncovers allegations of corruption in party financing and alleged back-handers on government contracts. FEB 1993 A court in Liege is ordered to probe allegations of corruption surrounding the Agusta deal. Investigations lead to the arrest of the Francophone Socialist Party's treasurer, Etienne Mange, who admitted that he accepted about pounds 1m from Agusta for the party's funds. JAN 1994 Guy Coeme, the Flemish Socialist defence minister, resigns as accusations mount that he - and the Flemish Socialist Party - were also involved in kick-backs from the Agusta deal. OCT 1994 Mr Claes becomes Secretary-General of Nato. FB 1995 The Liege court orders the arrest on corruption charges of Johan Delanghe, who had been Mr Claes's principal private secretary. Mr Claes denies knowing anything about bribes but recalls hearing about 'a gift' offered by Agusta to the Flemish Socialists.

MAR 1995

Frank Vandenbroucke resigns as Belgian foreign minister, admitting he ordered a slush fund for the Flemish Socialist Party to be destroyed. He admits that he ordered $172,000 to be burnt in 1991.

MAY 1995

Amid growing speculation, Mr Claes is formally questioned for the first time by the Cour de Cassation, Belgium's highest court. He says: "I see no reason to resign." He does, however, admit an "error of judgement". SEP 1995 Jacques Velu, the public prosecutor at the Cour de Cassation, sends a secret report on the Agusta affair to the Belgian parliament. A Belgian law granting immunity to ministers and ex-ministers means that only parliament can send Mr Claes for trial. A committee is set up to advise parliament on what to do. OCT 1995 October 6 It is revealed that the Velu report recommends that Mr Claes should be tried on charges of corruption, forgery and fraud. Mr Claes protests his innocence.

October 13-14 Mr Claes appears before the committee, which recommends that parliament should order a trial.

October 19 The full Belgian parliament hears evidence from Mr Claes and decides to send him for trial.

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