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Iran: Belgian Court Considers Charges Against Rafsanjani

Iran and Belgium are involved in a growing dispute over a human rights suit filed against a former Iranian president in a Brussels court. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the case.

Prague, 6 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's parliament warned on 5 March that diplomatic relations with Belgium are under threat over accusations of human rights abuses filed in Belgium against former Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

RFE/RL interviewed a correspondent of the Belgian daily "Le Libre Belgique," which is closely following the affair, to learn more about who filed the suit and what are the charges.

The correspondent says that the charges were brought by a male Belgian citzen of Iranian origin whose identity is being kept secret by the court for security reasons.

The man says he experienced torture and psychological violence in Iranian prisons between 1983 and 1989.

The man was an activist for the Iranian communist party, Tudeh, in Iran in the early 1980s and was arrested in 1983. He says he remained two years in prison before his trial. After what he calls a speedy judicial process in which he was not allowed to defend himself, the man was sentenced to seven years in prison. In 1989 he benefited from an amnesty but was forbidden to leave Iran until 1997, when he reached Belgium.

It is not immediately clear why the plaintiff is bringing charges against Rafsanjani personally, as Rafsanjani at the time was not the head of the Iranian regime but speaker of parliament. The president was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now supreme leader of Iran. Under him, in 1983, there was a strong repression of secular parties in Iran by the Islamic regime, and hundreds of militants of the Tudeh party were arrested.

Iran has rejected the idea that a Belgian court has authority to bring charges against Rafsanjani and the parliament has said that the case could threaten diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said today that Iran was seeking to obtain more information on the matter and played down the import of the case.

Afesi said, to quote, "that what we know about so far is merely the lodging of a complaint. The judicial procedure has not begun."

He also said that the Belgian court was not competent to handle any such case and accused unidentified parties of wanting to harm the development of Iran's relations with Europe.

The case was sent to the Brussels court last month (February 17) and the court assigned it to Judge Damien Vandermeersch, a well-known specialist in human rights cases.

The suit is being brought under a Belgian law first passed in 1993, and completed last year, which recognizes the right of Belgian courts to investigate and to try crimes against humanity wherever they occur. The law is similar to those passed in other European Union countries which most recently resulted in charges against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The former Chilean leader, also charged with human rights violations, was recently freed from house arrest in London after being held in connection with an extradition request by a Spanish judge.

The Belgian judge will now study the charges against Rafsanjani and gather additional data on them. Should the case go to trial and Rafsanjani be found guilty, an international arrest warrant against him could be issued. That could be a nuisance for Rafsanjani if he travels abroad. By extension, the case also inculpates the Iranian regime, and other figures could be implicated in it as investigations proceed.

The Belgian government has sought to stay out of the affair, saying it has no authority to intervene one way or another in a charges brought by a private individual in a criminal case. Since the case became public in recent days, the Foreign Ministry has said several times that the Belgian government has no political motive behind the suit and must respect the separation of powers which exists between Belgium's judicial and executive branches. Foreign Ministry spokesman Michel Malherbe told AFP yesterday that his country wants to pursue friendly bilateral relations with Iran but insists on the independent nature of Belgian justice.

Analysts say that Belgium has relatively modest economic ties with Iran, unlike other EU countries such as Italy, France and Germany. Belgium's largest links with Iran have until recently been through the Belgian oil firm Petrofina, which made investments in Iran's oil sector. Petrofina has since been taken over by the French group Total.