Belgians reopen Total Myanmar probe

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BRUSSELS, Oct 1 (Reuters) Belgian prosecutors have reopened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity by France's Total over its pipeline project in Myanmar, the federal prosecutors' office said today.

Belgium's Supreme Court of Appeals stopped the probe in 2005 after ruling that four Myanmar refugees who brought the case against the oil giant did not have the same rights as Belgian citizens to file a complaint.

''The case has been reopened,'' said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors office. She said the instruction had come from the Defence Ministry and was expected to go to a pre-trial court in the last week of October to determine whether or not it could be brought to trial.

A spokeswoman for Total had no immediate comment today.

The refugees filed a suit against Total in 2002, using a controversial Belgian human rights law that gives the courts the right to try people accused of crimes against humanity and other atrocities committed anywhere in the world.

The refugees' complaint targeted Total, its chairman Thierry Desmarest and former head of its Myanmar operations Herve Madeo for complicity in torture and forced labour of workers in building a pipeline in the country, formerly known as Burma.

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

Belgium revised the law in 2003 to make it harder for foreigners to use it for politically motivated lawsuits. Its courts had been flooded with lawsuits claiming rights violations by world figures such as Israel's Ariel Sharon and US leaders.

The news of the reopening of the Total case comes as the European Union has been considering tightening sanctions on Myanmar after a new bloody crackdown on street protests by the Myanmar security forces last week.

REUTERS SKB AS1940

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