Arms manufacturers bribe socialist politicians

The so-called Agusta-Dassault affair shook the Belgian political establishment in the 1990's and resulted in the conviction of three former ministers, a former NATO Secretary General, a leading captain of industry, a high civil servant, and a raft of senior socialist party officials. The corruption trial exposed some of the excesses in private financing of political parties in Belgium - a practice which was not illegal at the time but has been adjusted since.

Twelve defendants were given suspended sentences from three months to three years for their role in securing government contracts for defence firms at the end of the 1980's, in return for substantial contributions to socialist party officials. A first contract involved a deal with the Italian arms manufacturer Agusta for 46 new army helicopters. In a second contract, the French firm Dassault Aviation equipped Belgian F-16 jets with the ECM-system Carapace. According to the judgement, Flemish socialist party officials received € 2,73 million from Agusta and Dassault, Walloon socialist party ministers and staff cashed in € 1,22 million from Dassault. The bribe money was used in the election campaigns and for supporting a leftist press in Belgium.

The Agusta affair was brought in the open after a former deputy prime minister, André Cools from the Walloon socialist party, was shot dead as he left his mistress's flat in Liège on 18th July 1991. As the investigation unfolded, the socialist party president and two socialist ministers resigned. One year later, the Agusta affair reached the Flemish socialist party leading to confessions that € 1,25 million had been received from Agusta. After it was revealed that orders had been given to burn a remaining amount of black money, the minister of Foreign Affaires (and former socialist party president) resigned as well. In April 1995 it became obvious that bribe money had been funnelled to party coffers by Dassault. In a tumultuous session, the Belgian parliament decided to refer the former minister of Economic Affairs, Willy Claes, to the highest court in Belgium, the Cour de Cassation. Although he maintained his innocence, Mr. Claes resigned two days later as the Secretary General of NATO, a position he held since one year. In the 1990's Belgian ministers and former ministers could only be judged by the highest court - a constitutional rule that has later been changed.

Together with my colleagues Filip Verhoest and Luk Van Eylen, I covered the 41 days trial in front of the 15 supreme judges. As could be expected, the hearings ran high on emotions and incidents. In the build-up to the trial, a former air force chief of staff committed suicide and a key witness died from a heart failure just days before the opening session. A tragedy occurred in the course of the trial, when the wife of one of the defendants committed suicide, and a draft letter to socialist party officials was found on her computer hard disk. There were also hilarious moments, for example when the supreme court was told that bribe money had travelled in plastic bags to a Luxemburg vault. But in the end, it was a shocking picture that came to light about arms manufacturers bribing socialist politicians in exchange for government contracts - and the sophisticated ways through Panamanian offshore companies and Swiss bank accounts Belgian politicians had conceived to hide there crimes from justice and public opinion. For the record, it can also be mentioned that Flemish defendants were refused a translation in Dutch of the court files, but were graciously allowed to plead in their own language. For our reporting, Filip, Luk and I were honoured with the "Golden Pen" of the Belgian financial institution Dexia, the most important media award in Belgium.

The condemnation for active and passive corruption and for forgery had far reaching consequences in Belgian political life. Several ministers could no longer return to active political life and a new generation of socialist leaders took over. In the 1999 general elections, the Flemish socialist party lost six seats in parliament but succeeded to join the new government in a historic change of coalitions. After the Cour the Cassation dismissed a demand for cassation in December 1999, the European Court of Human Rights had the last word in June 2005. The Strassbourg judges ruled that two ministers of state, including Mr. Claes, had got a fair trial. By contrast, they judged that five other defendants had not been treated fairly, since their case was linked to the juridical procedure for ministers - effectively depriving them of a right to appeal. The judgement of the European Court could not overrule their condemnation, but the Belgian state must pay full damages to three of them.