Sex row menaces Belgian coalition

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The Independent Online
The Belgian parliament yesterday launched a commission of inquiry into claims that a Deputy Prime Minister, Elio di Rupo, had sex with young boys.

The latest paedophile scandal poses a serious threat to the coalition government of Jean-Luc Dehaene, still reeling from the Marc Dutroux child- sex murders, which brought claims of government incompetence and cover- up.

Political figures predicted yesterday that Mr di Rupo, who is also Minister for Telecommunications, may be forced to resign, destabilising the centre- left coalition.

After days of rumour-mongering in the Flemish press, the Belgian authorities confirmed that police were investigating allegations of paedophilia against Mr di Rupo, a Francophone Socialist of Italian descent, and against Jean Pierre Grafe, a minister in the Francophone regional government.

The allegations are not connected with the Dutroux atrocities, which involved the killing of at least four young girls and abuse of many more.

Mr di Rupo and Mr Grafe, who are openly homosexual, vehemently deny the accusations, saying they are pleased inquiries are being launched to clear their names.

Mr Dehaene described the allegations as "sick and mad", according to one press report.

Several commentators have warned against an anti-gay witch-hunt, saying there is no evidence that the men engaged in sex with partners other than consenting adults.

Nevertheless, the evidence against the two politicians has emerged as a direct result of the increased surveillance of public figures which followed public accusations that the Dutroux case was covered up in high places.

Reports yesterday suggested the evidence against the men had been presented by callers to a paedophile "hot-line" set up in in the wake of the Dutroux case in an attempt to gather more evidence against those abusing children sexually .

In the public mind, the latest allegations are certain to confirm some of the widespread fears that corruption runs deep into the Belgian judicial and political system. Last month more than 250,000 people marched through Brussels demanding that the authorities account for their failure to avert the horrors perpetrated by Dutroux.

Public anger at the Belgian political class has also been fuelled by revelations about a series of unsolved corruption scandals, and, in particular, the murder of Andre Cools, the ?deputy prime minister, shot dead in Liege in 1991.

Claims of a cover-up in the Cools case threw new light on the murky underworld of Liege, in Francophone Belgium, where the Dutroux gang was also known to operate. Liege, with a large Italian population, is an outpost of Italian Mafia gangs.

The Cools inquiry has led to three high-level political resignations of Francophone Socialists since September. Both the Dutroux case and the Cools case have exposed the invidious nature of political patronage in Belgium throughout police forces and the judiciary.

Several commentators were yesterday urging Belgium to resist letting grief and anger provoke a witch-hunt mentality. The accusations against Mr di Rupo and Mr Grafe were as yet unsubstantiated and may be the result of paranoia and political smears.

There were suggestions in the Francophone press yesterday that extremist Flemish groups may be exploiting recent public disquiet to bring down the government by attacking Francophone politicians. The Flemish papers yesterday were unrestrained in detailing how Mr di Rupo liked to frequent gay bars in Brussels.

"We believe it is particularly unjust and base to take against citizens solely because of their sexual preferences," said Michel Marteau in a commentary in Le Soir.

"In Belgium, as in nearly all countries, homosexuality is not a crime ... Let's wait for justice to do its work."

In an effort to contain the latest upsurge of public anger, the Belgian parliament moved swiftly to launch a commission of inquiry, which will make a recommendation on whether Mr di Rupo's immunity from prosecution should be lifted. The Deputy Prime Minister could then face charges before the courts. Regional parliaments were also meeting to consider a committee of inquiry into the case of Mr Grafe.

The scandal, however, looks certain to escalate. While the seriousness of the latest allegations has yet to be tested, the ferment they have already caused reveals how vulnerable the country's political establishment has become since the Dutroux affair first erupted. The Belgian press appear bent on exposing any allegations, however tenuous, against public figures, having taken their cue from the recent mass demonstrations of anger by the Belgian people.