Europe

Belgium firms prosecuted over exporting Sarin precursor to Syria

A Syrian boy holds an oxygen mask over the face of an infant at a make-shift hospital following a reported gas attack on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on 22 January 2018 Image copyright AFP
Image caption There are claims Sarin has been used in a number of recent attacks in Syria, but the country's stockpiles of the nerve agent are supposed to have been destroyed

Three Belgian companies are to be prosecuted for exporting chemicals that could be used in the production of the deadly nerve agent Sarin to Syria.

The companies exported 96 tonnes of isopropanol to Syria between 2014 and 2016, the court summons says.

The firms say they were unaware that 2013 sanctions made export licences compulsory and allege that customs officials knew about the exports.

Isopropanol can be used in legitimate products such as paint remover.

But it is also a precursor in the production of Sarin, which the UN and Western nations accuse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using against his own population.

The case against the three Belgian firms - AAE Chemie (a chemicals firm), Danmar Logistics and intermediary Anex Customs - was first reported by the Belgian news site Knack following an investigation in collaboration with the Syrian Archive group.

Finance ministry Florence Angelici told AFP news agency that the firms had been charged with making false customs declarations, and that the case would go to court from 15 May.

The firms, however, say they were unaware of the new licence requirements and acted in good faith when continuing to trade with paint and varnish companies with whom they had done business for more than 10 years.

"Every single kilo, every container is checked and controlled by the customs," Herman Van Landeghem from Danmar Logistics told the BBC.

"We gave them all the documents. They checked every container and released every container.

"Why did they release the containers? We opened them in front of the nose of the customs officers. They know where we sell them, they checked them for years and years and we have exported them to the Middle East for years. We supplied all the necessary documents.

"Everything we export to Syria is to clients that are not on the blacklist. None of them."

Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013 and in doing so its existing Sarin stockpiles were handed over for destruction.

But since then a UN report found that Sarin was used to kill scores of people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 and Western nations say they also suspect it was deployed in a deadly attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma earlier this month.

Both incidents prompted Western retaliatory air strikes.

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