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Iraq: Civilians Filing War Crimes Suit In Belgium Against U.S. Commander Franks

A lawyer in Belgium is this week filing a war crimes lawsuit against General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq. He's acting on behalf of 19 mainly Iraqi civilians who say coalition forces are responsible for a string of incidents that injured them -- or maimed or killed their loved ones. The lawyer says he wants to shed light on some of the murkier events of the Iraq war. But critics say the lawsuit is politically motivated.

Prague, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A war crimes suit is being filed in Brussels on behalf of a group of civilians harmed during the Iraq war.

The 19 plaintiffs are all Iraqis from the Baghdad area, apart from two -- the wife and father of the Al-Jazeera journalist killed when the network's office in Baghdad was shelled by U.S. forces.

They claim they or their loved ones were the victims of U.S. cluster bombs, of three separate attacks by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi ambulances, as well as an explosion at a Baghdad market they say was caused by a U.S. missile. The suit lists 17 incidents where they claim U.S. soldiers or commanders violated international law.

U.S. General Tommy Franks is the target of the lawsuit, since the plaintiffs say he was responsible for the actions of coalition troops under his command.

Jan Fermon is the plaintiffs' lawyer. He told RFE/RL the suit is based on evidence collected by Belgian doctors who were working in Iraq during the war. "Again and again, they were asked by the victims and their families and the medical personnel with whom they were working if there was any possibility to hold someone accountable for these very serious human and civilian casualties. So that's why the doctors finally asked me to find out if there was any possibility to get an independent inquiry on this because that's the first objective of this, to get an independent investigation, and to eventually establish through this investigation responsibilities and in some way to get the case to justice," Fermon said.

Fermon is presenting his suit in Belgium under a controversial 10-year-old law that allows Belgian courts to try cases of war crimes committed by anyone, anywhere in the world. He was on the team that brought the first case under the law -- the trial of four Rwandans on genocide charges.

Other high-profile figures targeted under the law include former U.S. President George Bush, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The case against Sharon was quashed earlier this year -- but not before it soured relations between Belgium and Israel.

Last month, Belgium responded to criticism from Israel and the U.S. by introducing changes to the law. A new "screening" process is designed to filter out politically motivated suits against top officials from democratic countries. But it's not clear if the changes could prevent military officials like Franks from being prosecuted.

Fermon said he's presenting the case to a Belgian court because his first option -- the new International Criminal Court -- wasn't possible. That's because the U.S. isn't a signatory because it fears politically motivated prosecutions. And that's exactly the objection many have to this case.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the lawsuit "arrogant and frivolous" and said it could set the stage for a politically motivated show trial. Unnamed senior U.S. officials are reported to have warned that the case could lead to "diplomatic consequences" for Belgium if it's taken up.

Richard Boucher, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said Belgium should prevent its legal system from being abused. "We are pleased that the Belgian government has taken action to change the law, but we believe the Belgian government needs to be diligent in taking steps to prevent abuse of the legal system for political ends. As to the specific case, we believe it does show the danger of a judicial system that's open to politically motivated charges," Boucher said.

Fermon said the only thing his clients are after is justice. And even if Tommy Franks doesn't get his day in court, Fermon said he hopes the case will prompt an investigation into the incidents.

"It would be a very serious problem if there would be a situation in which there would be absolutely no form of accountability for these kinds of facts. Of course, the Belgian government can intervene and dismiss the case for purely political reasons, but I think they shouldn't because if such serious crimes would not be at least investigated, I think it would be a situation of total injustice for the victims," he said.

Fermon said he plans to file the suit on 14 May.