June 30, 1997
Belgian soldiers acquitted in Somalia trial
By Nieck Ammerlaan
BRUSSELS - A Brussels military court Monday acquitted two Belgian ex-paratroopers of maltreating a Somali child during a humanitarian mission in the African country in 1993 because of insufficient evidence.
``It could not be established that physical violence had been inflicted,'' presiding judge Dirk Moereman said, adding that there also was no conclusive evidence that the child's life had been in danger. The men were given the benefit of the doubt.
Kurt Coelus and Claude Baert had been identified from a photograph in Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws earlier this year which appeared to show them swinging a boy over a camp fire.
The prosecutor had demanded one month's prison for Coelus, now in the Belgian Navy, and Baert who has left the army.
A separate case involving their Sgt. Dirk Nassel will be heard in September. He was also charged with threatening behavior and physical violence while serving in the same multinational peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Nassel is alleged to have made a Somali Muslim boy eat pork and drink salt water.
Coelus and Baert, members of the Third Paratroop Battalion, had told the court they had meant no harm. They had merely played a game by grabbing one of the children attracted by the warmth of the fire, proclaiming they would 'roast' it.
The men had been playing with Somali children all day, mainly out of boredom.
The court said there had been no conclusive evidence that the child's clothing had caught fire while it was being swung over the fire for 30 seconds to a minute. ``(The child) did not call out or cry...it started as a game,'' Moereman said.
The court said the child had been treated roughly, but there had been no hostility.
It dismissed charges of racism and inhuman behavior brought by the Belgian Center for Equal Opportunities and the Fight Against Racism. It disallowed an application by the Center the charges be upgraded to war crimes under the Geneva Convention.
The court said there was insufficient evidence that the two men had had racist motives, although there might have been a generally racist atmosphere in their battalion or among other United Nations troops in Somalia.
Luc Walleyn, the Center's lawyer, said after the trial the court did not reject the idea that racism had played a role in the incident. But it had been restricted to ruling on the two men's behavior only.
He said that in the case of Sgt. Nassel there were ``more serious elements'' of racist motives. The Center was considering appealing the verdict against Coelus and Baert.
Judge Moereman said: ``It is not this court's duty to try the Third Paratroop Battalion or Belgium's actions in Somalia.'' Nor was it up to the court to comment on the behavior of Italian or Canadian troops serving in the same humanitarian mission.
Charges of maltreating Somali children have been made against Canadian and Italian troops who also served for the United Nations in Somalia.
Moereman reprimanded Coelus and Baert. ``I cannot congratulate you on what you did. It was unwise and dangerous.''
He lashed out against the media, charging the men had been tried in public and as a result had ``gone through hell. For some parties the actual contents of the dossier did not matter. What happened with Italian and Canadian troops, other events in Somalia cannot be allowed to play a role here.''
The photographs of Coelus and Baert together with others showing a soldier urinating on an apparently dead Somali and one with his army boot on the head of another Somali caused outrage among the Belgian media and cries of ``paras of shame.''
Despite the dent to the paratroops' reputation, Belgian soldiers who served on humanitarian operations by the U.N. will feature in Belgium's traditional July 21 National Day parade.
June 30, 1997
Belgian Soldiers Acquitted of Torture
BRUSSELS, Belgium - Two Belgian peacekeepers accused of torturing a Somali boy by stretching him over an open fire were acquitted Monday by a military court.
The court found that privates Claude Baert and Kurt Coelus did not engage in torture in 1993 but in a playful game meant to discourage the child from stealing.
The two were also cleared of charges of assault and battery and threatening behavior.
``The court considered there was no evidence that the attack was meant to hurt the child (but that) it was a form of playing without violence,'' Prosecutor Luc Walleyn told reporters.
The prosecution had sought a monthlong jail term for both soldiers, who were among the U.N. peacekeepers from 21 countries sent to Somalia in ``Operation Restore Hope.''
The 1993-1995 mission was to protect and feed a population suffering in the anarchy of civil war. However, there have been numerous reports that some peacekeepers -- including Belgians, Italians and Canadians -- brutalized the civilians they were sent to help.
Monday's verdict raised questions about how successful prosecutors will be in obtaining guilty verdicts in similar cases of misconducts involving other Belgian peacekeepers.
The cases of Baert and Coelus came to light after a Belgian newspaper published pictures of the two holding a young Somali boy over an open fire. Baert has since left the armed forces, Coelus has transferred to the Belgian navy.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed shock and anger at reports of violence and torture ``which are unacceptable and counter to everything peacekeeping stands for.''
A Canadian government investigation on the Canadian experience in Somalia is due to be made public Wednesday.