Prince Laurent of Belgium testifies in marine fraud case

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Tuesday, January 9, 2007

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Trial location in the former court house of Hasselt.

Prince Laurent of Belgium, the youngest son of King Albert II of Belgium, has been questioned last night by the federal police and is attending today's court session in Hasselt in a marine fraud case that has gripped Belgian media since last December. He arrived in a Smart car and was accompanied by his lawyer and former politician Fred Erdman. The case turns around funds of the Belgian Navy that have been used to beautify the Prince's villa in Tervuren. The Prince is expected to testify this afternoon.

In total, 2.2 million was supposedly diverted from the marine's purchasing services using false invoices. Roughly € 185 000 was allegedly used to paint the Prince's villa, install lights in the garden, for the purchase of carpet and furniture, and for his secretariat and for animal clinics the Prince supports via his Foundation. Twelve marine officers and contractors are being accused of document fraud, collusion, bribery, embezzlement of government money etc. and could face 10 years in prison. The money was part of the budget that wasn't spent at the end of the year, and which would flow back to the government if the army didn't spend it.

The Prince, who is also an officer in the navy, is being treated only as a witness in this case, there have been no charges against him. The Attorney General in Hasselt Marc Rubens has said that there are no elements in the investigation that point to the fact that Laurent was aware of the affair, however several accused have contested this in the press. Technically, the villa is not the property of the Prince himself, but of the Royal Gift, which manages the real property of the Royal Family.

During his interview by the police last night, Prince Laurent stated that he needed funds to renovate his villa, and that Noël Vaessen, his adviser, told him the Navy could help him. The Prince stated that he thought it was legal, and that he had no reason to doubt his adviser.

Ex-Colonel Noël Vaessen was an adviser of the Prince between 1993 and 1999. Vaessen has declared in the media during the last month that the Prince actively participated in the fraud, and that he fears a cover-up. He said that the Prince was a demanding party in the operation, and that "he knew that we were arranging things to make his life and his work as comfortable as possible." According to Vaessen, the Prince was in need of money to support a royal lifestyle, and "didn't even have enough money to buy food."

In 2001, Vaessen was discharged with honour from the army "for medical reasons", but Defence Minister André Flahaut is investigating if there was no agreement to give him his pension in exchange for the fact that he wouldn't incriminate the Prince. Vaessen also accused the Prince of other things, such as racing against the high-speed train TGV on a French highway. He has also incriminated Admiral Herteleer. Captain Johan Claeys, one of the accused, studied with the Prince and worked at the facturation services of the Navy in 1998 and 1999. One of the accused contractors, Marc Luypaerts, has told the press that the judge responsible for the investigation in Hasselt had forbidden him to speak about Prince Laurent.

Laurent's status as a Prince has several judicial consequences for the trial. In Belgium, it's against the law to incriminate the Royal Family during a trial. Also, the Prince is protected from judicial pursuit because he is also a Senator by law. Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx has issued a Royal Decrete, which the King has signed while on holiday in Napels, which would make it possible for Princes to testify in a trial.

However, Public Prosecutor Erwin Steyls has chosen to have Laurent interrogated by the police last night in Hasselt. This was the first time during the last six years of the inquiry that the Prince was questioned. Today in the court, the Prosecutor defended the act of having him questioned outside the trial, saying that there were several procedural issues. First, the subpoena for the Prince wasn't issued in time to be legal. Second, the details of the protocol to hear the Prince in court were not explained in the recent Royal Decrete, making it worthless -something Minister Onkelickx denied. Thirdly, nobody can be forced to testify against himself, and if the Prince were to make false statements under oath, he could only be sued for perjury. However, the court has decided to let him testify anyway this afternoon.

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Nobody is above the law and the Justice Department must be able to complete its task in full independence. When the courts find embezzlements, it seems fair to me that they would be compensated by anyone who profited from them.

During the last month, the case has caused a several spin-off discussions in Belgium. One of the surprises during this period was the King's Christmas Message, in which he referred to the case. The regional governments are now investigating and discussing their donations to the IRGT/KINT, an environmental organisation supported by Prince Laurent. But there is also an ongoing debate over the position of the Monarchy in Belgium. Some politicians are suggesting to limit the role of the Monarchy, and other think that only the King and Queen, the Crown Prince or Princess and the widow(er) of the King or Queen should receive state funding.

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