In a major test to recent changes in Belgium's anti-genocide law, which allows foreign cases to be tried in Brussels, a lawyer has filed a war crimes case on behalf of Baghdad residents against two U.S. military leaders.
A handful of Baghdad residents would like to see U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks behind bars for war crimes.
In a development that could further complicate ties between Belgium and the United States, a group of 19 Iraqi civilians filed a war crimes lawsuit on Wednesday against Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. troops in the war against Iraq, and Col. Brian McCoy.
The suit was filed by human rights attorney Jan Fermon, who is a candidate for a parliament as a member of an obscure left-wing party in Sunday's national elections in Belgium. It is made possible by a controversial Belgian law that allows the country's courts to prosecute people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, regardless of where the crimes occurred or whether the suspects or victims were Belgian.
"This is no symbolic action," Fermon told reporters as he filed the papers with prosecutors in Brussels. "My mandates want an independent investigation of the events."
A bombed out Baghdad market.
The plaintiffs include the Jordanian father and wife of an al-Jazeera journalist killed when the Arab broadcaster's office was bombed, along with 17 Baghdad residents affected by 17 alleged incidents, including attacks on ambulances, attacks with cluster bombs as well as the bombing of a crowded marketplace (photo).
Fermon claims he has evidence from Belgian doctors who were working in Baghdad with humanitarian relief organizations to back up the plaintiff's claims.
U.S. could boycott Brussels
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff threatened the Belgium government that it may boycott the country as a venue for international meetings if it chooses to take up the case -- a veiled threat that could have implications for NATO, which has its headquarters in Brussels. U.S. and Belgian ties were already tense enough over Belgium's refusal to support a military invasion of Iraq.
"It's looked upon by the U.S. government as a very, very serious situation," Gen. Richard Myers said Tuesday during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. "It clearly could have a huge impact on where we gather."
Test of new Belgian law
The case will be the first major test of a recently passed revision of the Belgian law, which gives prosecutors more discretion to throw out cases filed under the rule. The move came under considerable international pressure from the United States and Israel.
Israel's Prime Minister elect Ariel Sharon looks up as his touches Judaism holiest site the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Wednesday Feb. 7, 2001. Following Tuesday's election victory Sharon faces a difficult task in forming a government that has the support of the fractured parliament. (AP Photo/Davis Guttenfelder)
Israel recalled its ambassador for consultations in February because of a ruling at the time that threatened to prosecute Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after he leaves office and surrenders his diplomatic immunity. The case was brought on by Palestinians who claimed the leader was at the center of a 1982 massacre of two villages in Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that Belgium was putting its international reputation at stake after he was named in March in a lawsuit over the deaths of 403 people in the 1991 bombing of a Baghdad shelter in the Persian Gulf War. Former President George Bush and current VIce President Dick Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense, were also named in the case.
In its 36-22 vote in April, the Belgian Senate moved to rein in the law's scope, effectively halting the two cases, and the country's senior prosecutor now has the discretion to decide whether a complaint should be examined in Belgium, referred back to the country concerned -- if it has a sufficient record of democracy and fair justice -- or passed on to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Officials in Washington are hoping Ferman's case will hit a dead-end road in Brussels. The State Department called on the Belgium government to drop the case. "We are pleased that the Belgian government has taken action to change the law," State Department spokesman Richard Bouchar said on Wednesday. "But we believe the Belgian government needs to be diligent in taking steps to prevent abuse of the legal system for political ends. As to the specific case, we believe it does show the danger of a judicial system that's open to politically motivated charges."
Still, Ferman is intent on taking his chances. He told journalists he had filed the case in Belgium because it was not possible to go to the International Criminal Court, since the United States is not a member.
Only one case has been brought to court since the 1993 law was enacted. Four Rwandans were found guilty of involvement in the 1994 genocide in the African country and were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison in June 2001.
Compiled with information from Deutsche Welle and wire services.