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Belgium to reopen rights probe on Total in Myanmar

From Reuters
April 15, 2005
link to this article.

Belgium is set to reopen an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by French oil giant Total in Myanmar following a court ruling, the plaintiff's lawyer said on Thursday.

The probe is the first to involve a company rather than an individual under a controversial human rights law claiming universal jurisdiction that has caused Belgium diplomatic grief, especially with the United States.

A magistrate opened the investigation in 2002 after four political refugees filed a lawsuit against Total, accusing it of supporting Myanmar's military junta.

The refugees also sued Total Chief Executive Thierry Desmaret and another executive of complicity in the torture and forced labour of workers who were building a pipeline in the country, formerly known as Burma.

But the investigation was later suspended pending a court ruling on whether a refugee had the same right as a Belgian citizen to use the law, which empowers courts to try perpetrators of these crimes committed anywhere in the world.

On Wednesday, the constitutional court granted that right to one of the refugees, Aung Maw Zin.

"The examining magistrate can start where he left off," the refugee's lawyer, Alexis Deswaef, told Reuters.

Total spokesman Philippe Gateau said the company would review the tribunal's ruling before making a comment.

Total has previously denied funding the military in Myanmar but has said the junta paid soldiers to protect the company's installations and workers. The pipeline was completed in 1998.

Total and other Western multinationals have been under pressure from activists to withdraw from Myanmar, shunned for its human rights record and suppression of political opponents.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on its military government.

In December, U.S. oil company Unocal settled two lawsuits filed by 15 villagers who accused it of ignoring rights abuses by soldiers while the pipeline was being built.

Unocal, recently acquired by ChevronTexaco and a partner of Total in the pipeline project, nevertheless denied any responsibility. Asian companies have quickly stepped in to replace Western firms that have withdrawn, vying for Myanmar's natural wealth in oil and gas, timber, gems and minerals.

Belgium revised the human rights law in 2003 to make it more difficult for foreigners to use it for politically motivated or frivolous lawsuits.

The country had suffered a diplomatic nightmare after scores of lawsuits flooded its courts against Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and U.S. leaders.

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