BRUSSELS, Belgium – Belgium (search) moved swiftly Thursday to dismiss war crimes complaints against President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), anxious not to create more tension with Washington over the Belgian war crimes law.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) warned last week that the United States may encourage NATO to move its headquarters out of Belgium unless the country changes the newly amended law to rule out complaints against Americans.
The Justice Ministry acted within 24 hours after the complaints were filed, referring them to British and American authorities under recent changes designed to prevent frivolous or politically motivated use of the 1993 law. Under the statute, Belgian courts can hear war crimes cases regardless of where the crimes are alleged to have occurred.
"This shows that ... the system works without changing the law any further," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said from the Greek resort of Porto Carras, where he was attending a European Union summit.
Belgian officials traveling with him said the complaints were filed separately by disgruntled individuals from Germany, Switzerland and Belgium and concerned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One targeted Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gen. Tommy Franks for their role in the Iraq war.
A second named only Powell. The third cited Bush, Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and stemmed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The public prosecutor's office alerted the government, which immediately sent the cases to judicial authorities in London and Washington, effectively blocking the complaints.
But the fact they were filed at all will probably fuel anger in Washington.
On a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels last week, Rumsfeld demanded Belgium change the law again, warning that U.S. officials would no longer travel to alliance meetings if they continued to face such suits. He added Washington would block funding for a new NATO building in the Belgian capital.
There have already been two complaints against U.S. officials.
One targeted Iraq war commander Franks; the other former President George Bush, Vice president Dick Cheney, Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf for their roles in the 1991 Gulf War.
Facing mounting international pressure over such complaints, the parliament modified the law in April, allowing the government to pass cases to the home country of the accused person if that country has a working judicial system.
The amended law was the basis for dismissing the latest cases and the Franks case.
Once accusations have been sent to the accused person's home country, Belgium will take no further action, judging that the home country, the United States in this case, would give the cases a fair hearing regardless of whether it leads to legal action.
The Belgian laws were first used to target suspects who fled to Europe after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Since then cases have been filed against several world leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.