Belgian court finds Claes, 10 officials and French businessman guilty of corruption

 

The former secretary-general of NATO, Mr Willy Claes, a millionaire French businessman, and 10 other Belgian politicians and party officials were yesterday found guilty of corruption and given suspended jail terms at the end of a trial that effectively put Belgium's two Socialist parties in the dock.

All the defendants also face substantial costs and financial penalties as the law provides for the repayment to the state of the bribes amounting to some £3 million, some of it still in frozen Luxembourg bank accounts. And all were banned from political office for five years.

The fact that none actually ended up in jail was not unexpected. Leniency had been recommended by the prosecutor-general, Ms Elaine Liekendael.

Claes, an ex-finance minister, was given a three-year jail term, suspended for five years, for passive corruption (receiving bribes) in cases involving France's huge military supplier, Dassault, and the Italian helicopter builder, Agusta.

The sentence for Dassault, the boss of the French firm, was two years, suspended for five, for active corruption, announced at the end of a judgment by the Cour de Cassation, Belgium's top court, that took more than four hours to read. The 12 defendants were accused of accepting bribes from the Agusta and Dassault companies in return for Belgian state contracts in 1988 and 1989.

In the dock were three former ministers, Claes, of the Flemish Socialist Party (SP), Guy Coeme, of the Francophone Socialists (PS), and the latter's former leader, Guy Spittaels, as well as several former party officials.

Also charged were two multimillionaires, Dassault, who flew in daily to the trial on his private jet from Paris, and the head of Agusta, Rafaello Teti, who died of a heart attack in August at the age of 72.

The case arose out of the suspicious awarding by the Belgian government of a contract to supply 46 helicopters to Agusta in 1988. Italian investigations into the company revealed substantial payments to the PS.

Raids on the SP headquarters in 1995 also produced evidence of payments to the party by Dassault in return for a contract to supply electronic equipment for warplanes. So far only Luc Wallyn, a former assistant SP treasurer had admitted personally benefiting from the money although the amount he took is disputed with the prosecution suggesting up to £800,000.

Although they denied wrongdoing Spitaels and Coeme were forced to resign as ministers in 1994, and Claes a year later from his job as Secretary-General of NATO. The scandal which has cast a pall over Belgian politics for nearly a decade has been linked directly to the suicide of one senior military officer and indirectly to the still unsolved murder of a former minister.

Claes had difficulty explaining two payments into his personal account in 1988 and 1992 of £30,000 and £60,000 respectively. In his first statement he claimed that his wife had saved the money in a drawer over the course of 25 years from her housekeeping, but was unable to explain why bank records showed that most of the notes were printed in 1988.

Subsequently he claimed it was unspent SP election money which he was holding for the party which had never asked him for it back. His lawyer, who described Claes as a "Dreyfus", had also unsuccessfully attempted to discredit prosecution witness, Mr Roberto Baldini, who had given evidence that Claes had met in secret with the head of Agusta before the awarding of the contract.

The most senior of the Belgian accused, Guy Spittaels, the former SP leader, is probably the luckiest in escaping a custodial sentence. He was described by Ms Liekendael as the "Mephistophelean puppeteer" at the centre of the scandal and spent his trial resolutely distancing himself from the minions who did his dirty work.

The judgment came after a 2 1/2 month trial starting on September 2nd, and 42 hearings over five weeks of deliberations by the 15-judge appeals panel. It was probably the most expensive court case in the history of the state, costing an estimated £1.2 million.

The scandal has had a profound impact on public perceptions of Belgian politics - one of the most telling moments in the trial was the revelation that Dassault admitted during interrogation in 1995 that "backhanders, everyone's at it". Few were surprised. Voting figures show an otherwise extraordinary willingness to forgive the Socialists. Ten years on, although Belgium has significantly cleaned up its act on party financing, public confidence was shaken again by the events surrounding the Dutroux affair, evidence again that reform does not come easy here.