Star witness Claes at kickback trial

 

The French aeronautics executive, Mr Serge Dassault, and the former NATO secretary-general, Mr Willy Claes, will be the star witnesses in a huge corruption trial over defence contracts that finally opens today.

The two and 10 other leading Belgians have been summoned to appear before the country's highest court, Belgium's Supreme Court of Appeals, in a case that could take on overtones of a broader "clean hands" graft probe.

The defendants are charged with corruption over allegations that Dassault Electronique and another company, Italy's Agusta, paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to Belgian political parties in the late 1980s to secure military contracts.

In a dramatic twist in 1995, it also forced Mr Claes to resign from his post as head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation after the Belgian parliament stripped him of immunity .

The trial comes nine months before legislative elections in a country whose confidence in its police and justice system has been sorely shaken, notably since the botched investigation over the paedophile, Marc Dutroux.

The defendants risk anything from prison terms to suspended sentences or fines in the trial.

The sole comparable case that went before the Supreme Court of Appeals - the only Belgian court empowered to judge ministers and former ministers for crimes committed in the exercise of their official duties - took place in 1996. It involved secret payments to Belgium's Francophone Socialist Party by the Inusop polling firm and all but one of the accused, who was sent to jail for a year, were given suspended prison terms.