Former Belgian PM Urges Repeal of War Crimes Law

A leading Belgian politician has proposed abolishing his country's war crimes law, which has soured relations with the United States after it was used to file charges against President Bush and other prominent Americans.

Former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene made the proposal after repeated U.S. demands for the repeal of the 1993 law. The criticism has sparked a widening political debate in about the future of the legislation, which allows Belgian courts to prosecute war crimes regardless of where they occurred.

"I think our ambitions are higher than our possibilities and that can jeopardize the role we have to play as European capital," Dehaene told the Canvas television network late Friday.

"It's a bit crazy to think we could be the conscience of the world," he added.

The leading party in the center-left government on Saturday rejected calls drop the law but said it would have to be further amended.

"We have to keep the spirit of the genocide law, but we have to adapt it to ensure that people from democratic nations and NATO allies are not affected," said Karel De Gucht, chairman of Flemish Liberal Democratic party.

Earlier Friday, Dehaene's party, the main opposition Christian Democratic and Flemish party, said it would propose amendments to the law limiting its scope to Belgian citizens.

The law was first used to convict four Rwandans involved in the 1994 genocide there. Since then, cases have been filed against a slew of world figures, including Saddam Hussein and Cuban President Fidel Castro as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The government has already pushed through changes that allow authorities to reject complaints against citizens from the United States or other countries judged to have fair legal systems.

Under those changes, complaints filed last week against Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, Blair and others were blocked within 24 hours.

Washington says that is not enough.

"The law that allows the filing of these cases ... is indefensible," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said Friday. "These cases demonstrate that, even with the recent amendments, the law does not work and we believe should be repealed."

That would dismay human rights campaigners who say the unique Belgian law provides a court of last resort for victims of war crimes around the would.

Repealing the law could kill efforts to put Chad's fallen dictator Hissene Habre in a Brussels dock this year on charges of torture, murder and other crimes. Campaigners are seeking Habre's extradition from Senegal, where he has lived in exile since 1990.

Foreign Minister Louis Michel on Friday became the first Belgian politician to be accused under the law. A small opposition group lodged a complaint concerning arms sales to Nepal.