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Belgium condemned over arms scandal convictions

Published on 03/06/2005

3 June 2005

BRUSSELS – Belgium’s justice system has been condemned for its handling of a high-profile corruption trial.

In December 1998, Belgium’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, convicted a string of socialist politicians and businessmen working in arms companies for involvement in bribes in the late 1980s.

Among them was one-time Nato general secretary Willy Claes, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister in Belgium, who was given a three-year suspended prison sentence for his part in the affair.

On Friday, several Belgian newspapers were surprised to report that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had agreed that five of those convicted in the ‘Agusta-Dassault’ trial didn’t get a fair hearing. But Strasbourg found nothing unfair about the trial of Claes and former defence minister Guy Coeme.

All seven were convicted for a scandal which involved BEF 171 million – the equivalent of EUR 4.1 million – being paid to the socialist party in return for the granting of huge military contracts to the Italian firm Agusta and the French firm Dassault.

They all complained to Strasbourg that their human rights were breached.

The court ruled that Belgium had acted wrongly in trying Serge Dassault, Alfons Puelinckx, Luc Wallyn, Johan Delanghe and Merry Hermanus alongside the government ministers. By trying them at the highest court in the land, they had no right to an appeal.

Strasbourg stated that the Court of Cassation wasn’t the court “set down in law” to try such defendants – they were sent there because of the decision to try all the suspects together. Strasbourg pointed out that it had already condemned Belgium in 2000 for a similar fault.

The court ordered Belgium to pay Puelinckx, Wallyn and Delanghe EUR 7,500 for moral damage and EUR 8,000 for legal expenses. However, it ruled out a retrial.

It also dismissed the arguments of Claes and Coeme as “theoretical and abstract”, stating they hadn’t put forward “the slightest concrete element as to difficulties organising their defence because of their supposed ignorance about the procedure to follow”.

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Belgian news