Belgium to lift threat of Bush war crimes trial

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Belgium is to amend war crimes laws used to target George Bush and the commander of American forces in Iraq, General Tommy Franks, after a threat from Washington to boycott meetings at Nato's headquarters in Brussels.

The move would ensure that cases could only be mounted if the defendant or the victim is a Belgian national or resident.

The changes were outlined by Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, who has been repeatedly embarrassed by the law, and are expected to be approved by the Belgian parliament by 21 July.

The climbdown follows a direct threat by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who said earlier this month that the United States might not be able to attend Nato meetings in Belgium. Mr Rumsfeld also threatened to block any new requests for cash for Nato's new multimillion-pound headquarters in Brussels.

Belgium had already watered down its universal competence law to ensure that cases against foreigners were referred first to their national courts. Washington deemed that unacceptable, fearing that those accused might face legal bills to get the charges thrown out of American courts. A further suggestion last week by Belgian leaders that diplomatic immunity would be granted to foreign officials visiting international organisations in Belgium also appears to have failed to satisfy US demands.

The latest move was attacked by human rights groups. Reed Brody, of Human Rights Watch, said: "It is regrettable that under irrational pressure from the United States the Belgian government is renouncing fundamental principles."

However, most senior Belgian politicians have viewed the law as a growing embarrassment and even supporters acknowledge that a change is inevitable. One of the latest to receive a writ is the Belgian Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, who has been accused over arms sales to Nepal.

Others include Mr Bush, General Franks and Tony Blair over Iraq; Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, over the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp massacres in 1982, and the former US president George Bush Snr over the 1991 Gulf war. Under the law, which was passed in 1993 and used in 2001 to convict two Rwandan nuns for their role in the slaughter of up to 7,000 Tutsis, charges can be laid in a Belgian court against foreigners for alleged war crimes committed outside Belgian jurisdiction.

Mr Verhofstadt said the reason for the changes was "not US pressure", but "because we want to keep the law".

Nato officials reacted cautiously, saying US legal experts would examine the text after it had cleared the Belgian parliament. If the changes were deemed satisfactory, US officials would make it known that they were relaxing their threat to block more Nato spending.

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