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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform