|Belgium said on Sunday that it would change
a controversial war crimes law for the second time this year after fierce
US criticism over lawsuits like one against President George W. Bush over
alleged Iraq war abuses.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the latest
change would make it harder for foreigners to initiate proceedings under
the legislation, which permits Belgian courts to try war and human rights
crimes no matter where they were committed.
Reform to the 1993 law would oblige the defendant or victim to have
Belgian residency if not citizenship, he said.
Verhofstadt said he would send the bill to parliament once his Liberal
party and the Socialists had reached agreement on forming a new coalition
government after their victory in legislative elections last month.
"Certain people and certain organisations, pursuing their own political
agenda, systematically use this law in an abusive manner," Verhofstadt
told a news conference. "Modifying the law will make it impossible to
abuse this law."
He was quick to reject suggestions he had bowed to U.S. pressure,
saying: "It is not U.S. pressure. The reason why we have modified it...is
really because we want to keep the law."
US embassy officials could not be reached for comment.
Tensions between Belgium and the United States have risen in recent
weeks, with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, himself the target of a
lawsuit, vowing to freeze spending on NATO's new headquarters in Brussels
unless the law were revoked.
Ever since Belgium convicted two Rwandan nuns on genocide charges in
the first trial to apply the law in 2001, it has been flooded with
lawsuits against world leaders.
One high profile case was against Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, filed by
survivors of a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by
Lebanese Christian militiamen. The case has been suspended given Sharon's
Belgium tried to discourage so-called "propaganda" cases by reforming
the law earlier this year. It made it possible to send a case to a
defendant's country if that country were democratic with a legal system
that could handle it properly.
But it failed to stop more lawsuits from being filed, worsening the
country's diplomatic headache.
The latest batch -- including a single-page letter sent by a Munich
resident -- accuses Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of war
crimes in the Iraq war.
The need to reform the law was given fresh impetus last week when a
local opposition party sued Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel for
approving arms shipments to Nepal.