Businessman in court for selling chemicals to Saddam.

A Dutch businessman appeared in a Rotterdam court today accused of selling chemicals to Saddam Hussein that were later used to kill thousands of Kurds in a 1988 attack on Halabja.

Today's pre-trial hearing marked the start of a landmark case, the first time a national court has prosecuted a businessman for complicity in war crimes and genocide. Dutch prosecutors said Frans van Anraat, 62, knew at the time of the sales in the 1980s that Saddam might use the chemicals to produce weapons.

The chemicals dealer is said to have exported thousands of tonnes of chemicals between 1984 and 1988 that were turned into mustard and nerve gas. Some of this was used in the war with Iran and the 1988 attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. More than 5,000 people died in that single attack.

UN weapons inspection agencies have described Mr van Anraat as one of the most important middlemen in Iraq's acquisition of chemical weapons raw materials.

Several dozen relatives of Kurdish victims attended today's hearing, some carrying photographs of loved ones gassed to death by Saddam's attack.

Mr van Anraat was not required to enter a plea or make a statement today. He has acknowledged in the past that he sold chemicals to Saddam's regime, but said his actions were neither wrong nor illegal.

He told a Dutch magazine, Revu, in 2003: "The images of the gas attack on the Kurdish city Halabja were a shock. But I did not give the order to do that. How many products such as bullets do we make in the Netherlands?"

Prosecutor Fred Teeven said investigators had strong evidence that Mr van Anraat calmly went ahead with delivering base materials even after the gas attack on Halabja, the Dutch broadcaster NOS reported.

Prosecutors say evidence against Mr van Anraat includes "official Iraqi documents", material which may also be used against Saddam when he goes before the Iraqi special tribunal on war crimes charges.

Mr van Anraat fled to Iraq in 1989 to avoid an extradition request by the US, which wanted to prosecute him for export violations in the same chemicals sale. He returned to the Netherlands via Syria after the start of the US-led invasion in 2003, and has been under arrest since December 2004.

Mr van Anraat's trial is due to begin in November. He faces life in prison if convicted.

[Source: The Guardian, London, UK, 18Mar05]

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