International News Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 14 September 1996
Issue 479

Belgium fights to shed its corruption-riddled Mafia image
By Toby Helm

IF corruption-riddled Belgium deserves its nickname, the "Italy of the north", then Liege is its Palermo.

The names of those arrested in recent days in connection with the unsolved murder of Andre Cools, the country's former deputy prime minister, read like a roll call for the Italian Mafia.

Carlo Todarello, Cosimo Solazzo, Domenico Castellino and Pino Di Mauro - all of Italian extraction operating in a city that hums with corruption - have been charged over the shooting of Mr Cools in Liege in 1991.

Also charged was Alain Van der Biest, a hard-drinking minister in the Socialist regional government, alleged by newspapers to have had close links with the Mafia gangs of Liege.

The city's mayor, Jean-Maurice Dehousse, a former close colleague of Mr Cools, said the disclosures of recent days had shocked even this sleaze-ridden city. "This is not business as usual," he said the day after a Liege court was told that Castellino had admitted hiring two Tunisian gunmen in the pay of the Sicilian Mafia to carry out the murder, on Solazzo's orders.

The men are said to have acted after it become known that Mr Cools - who had promised "shocking revelations" before his death - was ready to purge the local Mafia and expose their links in high circles in Liege.

Mr Dehousse made a half-hearted defence of his city, claiming that the Italian Mafia is "not a big problem here". But he admitted that many bad apples had travelled north from Italy, first in the Thirties to flee the Mussolini regime and later to work in the coal mines and steel mills around Liege in the late Forties and Fifties. "We didn't always get Nobel Prize winning types," he said.

The local and national police and judicial systems have been accused of displaying at best gross incompetence and at worst downright complicity

As Belgium struggles to come to terms with the Cools inquiry and the paedophilia and murder scandal, attention in both cases has focused on Liege. A few minutes' walk from Mr Dehousse's offices overlooking the River Meuse, Mr Cools's son, local barrister Marcel Cools, had just given an extraordinary press conference with his lawyer which sent a further tremor through the civic establishment.

They called for the removal from office of much of the local and national judicial establishment, including the judge in charge of the Cools case, Veronique Ancia, and Melchior Wathelet, Belgium's judge at the European Court of Justice.

Mr Wathelet, whom they accused of "systematic interference" in the judicial process, served as Belgium's Justice Minister at the time of the shooting and is accused by the Cools family of presiding over a mix of corruption, cover-ups and incompetence during subsequent investigations. Why, when the finger of blame had been pointed at Van der Biest's inner circle in a widely-publicised anonymous letter sent to police a few day after the killing, had it taken five years to charge the men? they asked. Even more chilling was their implication that the Mafia gangs involved in the Cools killing had been involved in the paedophilia and murder network allegedly run by Marc Dutroux.

Asked if he believed the two cases were linked, Marcel Cools said: "I can't imagine it. But there are so many unimaginable things in this country that who knows?"As in the Cools case, the local and national police and judicial systems have been accused of displaying at best gross incompetence and at worst downright complicity in the crimes.

There seems no end in sight to the web of corruption and the unsolved mysteries of murder and fraud

Mr Wathelet has also been criticised for releasing Dutroux from prison in 1992 - against much official advice - after serving three years of a five-year sentence for multiple rape.

Two of the four girls whose bodies have been found buried at Dutroux's houses - the eight-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo - were abducted last summer from their homes in Grace-Hollogne, near Liege. Suspects in the case are in and out of the city's courts every day.

Marcel Cools said after the press conference that he believed Van der Biest had played a role in his father's killing. "At the funeral I noticed that he refused to look me in the eye," he said.

But many believe that Van der Biest was not the sort of man to order a killing. And as the plot thickened, Belgian television yesterday quoted an unnamed witness as claiming that Guy Mathot, a leading Socialist politician, ordered the murder. Mr Mathot, a former regional government minister and still a deputy in the Wallonia regional parliament, said he was "scandalised" by the allegations and denied any involvement. Mr Mathot, was charged in 1994 with corruption in relation to kickbacks paid to Belgium's Socialist parties by the defence firms Agusta and Dassault.

The Cools murder inquiry uncovered a 1 million defence bribe paid by the Italian firm Agusta into Socialist party funds (the French-speaking wing of the party is based in Liege) in return for a contract for 46 attack helicopters for the Belgian air force.

The scandal led to the resignation of Willy Claes, a former Belgian defence minister, as Secretary-General of Nato.

Currently, the city is gripped by a scandal involving the mysterious switching into a Swiss bank account of 60 million from the state-run insurance company SMAP, which is based in Liege.

What is worse for locals to bear is that there seems no end in sight to the web of corruption and the unsolved mysteries of murder and fraud. Mr Dehousse said he believed the recent arrests in the Cools case did not mark the beginning of the end of the case.

11 September 1996: Belgian king acts over child sex scandal

Next Story: Clinton in health records challenge

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