THE HAGUE,(Reuters) – A Dutch businessman accused of selling chemicals to Iraq knowing Saddam Hussein would use them for poison gas attacks went on trial in the Netherlands on Monday on charges of complicity in war crimes and genocide.
Frans van Anraat, 63, is charged with supplying thousands of tonnes of agents for poison gas used by Saddam”s military in Iraq”s 1980-1988 war against Iran and against its own Kurdish population, including an attack on the town of Halabja in 1988.
Prosecutor Fred Teeven told a pre-trial hearing that Van Anraat continued to supply chemicals after the Halabja attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 people 17 years ago this week.
A small group demonstrating outside the Hague court displayed dozens of photographs of Kurdish victims of chemical weapons. They held a red banner reading "Genocide Never Again".
"I hope he gets a life sentence," said Amir Gadir of Victims of Genocide Against Kurds in Halabja.
The defence said Van Anraat did not know what Iraq intended to do with the materials he provided and had stopped shipments to Iraq after the Halabja attack. His lawyers said there was no convincing evidence linking material Van Anraat supplied to chemical weapons used by Iraq.
Saddam”s own trial for war crimes began in Baghdad in October. He has denied the charges.
United Nations weapons inspectors have said dVan Anraat was an important middle man supplying Iraq with chemical agents.
The first Dutchman to be tried on genocide-related charges, Van Anraat faces up to life in prison if convicted. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.
Iranian and Iraqi victims of chemical attacks plan to seek up to 10,000 euros ($11,690) compensation each from the accused.
"Ten of my relatives died. My parents, sisters and brothers were wounded," said 28-year-old Danya Mohammad, one of 16 Halabja victims who have launched a separate suit against Van Anraat.
Iraqi forces attacked Halabja after it was captured by Iranian troops in what Baghdad saw as a betrayal by local Kurds. The attack gained international notoriety after Iran invited foreign journalists to see the town, still strewn with bodies.
Van Anraat allegedly shipped chemicals from the United States to Belgium and from Belgium to Iraq via Jordan.
A criminal investigation a few years ago by U.S. customs authorities based in Baltimore found Van Anraat had been involved in four shipments to Iraq of thiodiglycol, an industrial chemical which can be used to make mustard gas. It also has civilian uses.
Van Anraat was first detained in Milan in 1989 following a U.S. request but was released after two months. He then fled to Iraq, where it is thought he stayed until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when he returned to the Netherlands through Syria.
He was arrested by Dutch officials at a house in Amsterdam last December as he was preparing to leave the country.
"The images of the gas attack on the Kurdish city Halabja were a shock. But I did not give the order to do that," Van Anraat said in a 2003 interview with Dutch magazine Nieuwe Revu.
"How many products such as bullets do we make in the Netherlands?"
The United States said Iraq”s suspected weapons of mass destruction were one of its main reasons for going to war in 2003, but significant stockpiles of chemical and biological arms have not been found.