- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The United States yesterday reiterated concerns about a Belgian law that allows foreign officials to be sued on accusations of war crimes after a report that a group of Iraqis are planning to use it to file a complaint against U.S. commanders who led the war in Iraq.
The State Department said it was pleased that Belgian legislators recently added a screening process to suits filed under the "universal competence" law, but signaled that Brussels should do more to filter out politically motivated cases.
"We've expressed those concerns to the government of Belgium," spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters when asked about a story in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times that said a suit is planned against the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, and other military officers for the war in Iraq.
"We're pleased that the Belgian government has taken action to change the law, but we believe the Belgian government needs to be diligent in taking steps to prevent abuse of the legal system for political ends," Mr. Boucher said.
"As to this specific case, we believe it does show the danger of a judicial system that's open to politically motivated charges," he added.
The Washington Times reported that 10 Iraqi civilians planned to accuse Gen. Franks and the others of committing war crimes in the current conflict.
It quoted Jan Fermon, a Brussels-based attorney representing the Iraqis, as saying the complaint would charge that "unknown American personnel are directly responsible for committing war crimes in Iraq."
Mr. Fermon told The Times that he expected to file the suit in about two weeks, accusing U.S. soldiers of firing on an ambulance, attacking a civilian bus, killing scores of civilians by bombing a Baghdad marketplace and failing to prevent the looting of hospitals.
"On some of these questions there is an issue of command responsibility for atrocities committed on the ground, and that responsibility ends with General Franks and those who are under him in the U.S. lines of command," he said.
Mr. Boucher's complaints about Belgium's 1993 universal competence law are not new.
Last month after being named in a suit stemming from the 1991 Gulf war, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that, unless restricted, the law could affect Belgium's status as an international hub, referring specifically to Brussels, which is home to the European Union as well as NATO.
After those complaints, as well as protests from Israel, whose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has also been sued under the law, Belgian lawmakers adopted changes earlier this month that allow for government prosecutors to refer certain cases to courts in the defendant's country of origin.
About 30 current or former political leaders are facing legal action under the law, including Mr. Sharon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former President George Bush and Mr. Powell.w

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