Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal

An inquiry into the 1991 assassination of Belgian Socialist Party politician André Cools showed that Cools had knowledge of suspicious dealings in the purchases of helicopters and fighter planes for the Belgian military. The Agusta and Dassault manufacturing companies had bribed a number of politicians and other ranking officials to get the contracts.

Summary of Event

On December 23, 1998, the Belgian court of cassation, Belgium’s highest court, issued verdicts in the Agusta and Dassault case against several prominent Belgians. The verdicts were the result of the largest scandal in Belgium in modern times. The criminal activity originated in bribes paid by the Italian company Agusta and the French company Dassault to numerous Belgian politicians to obtain lucrative military manufacturing contracts. Over the course of the scandal, one government minister had been assassinated, another committed suicide, others were forced to resign, and Belgian political parties were disgraced. Agusta scandal
Dassault, Serge
Cools, André
Bribery;Belgian politicians
[kw]Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal, Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in (Dec. 23, 1998)
[kw]Corruption Scandal, Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault (Dec. 23, 1998)
[kw]Glass Is Exposed as a Fraud, Journalist Stephen (May 11, 1998)
[kw]Fraud, Journalist Stephen Glass Is Exposed as a (May 11, 1998)
Glass, Stephen
New Republic, The
Agusta scandal
Dassault, Serge
Cools, André
Bribery;Belgian politicians
[g]Europe;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[g]Belgium;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Law and the courts;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Corruption;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Government;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Murder and suicide;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Organized crime and racketeering;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Business;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
[c]Politics;Dec. 23, 1998: Prominent Belgians Are Sentenced in Agusta-Dassault Corruption Scandal[02920]
Claes, Willy
Teti, Raffaello
Ancia, Véronique

Despite its formidable international reputation as the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the North American Treaty North Atlantic Treaty Organization Organization (NATO), Belgium has had a tempestuous domestic history. Belgium is a single country made up of two distinct nationalities. The Dutch-speaking Flemish live largely in the north and the French-speaking Walloons live largely in the south. Rivalries between these two populations have often made for unstable, contentious domestic politics. Political parties, such as the Socialist Party, are divided along Dutch- and French-speaking lines. Over the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Belgian life had been marked by political corruption and organized crime.

On July 18, 1991, the prominent Walloon politician André Cools was assassinated in the industrial city of Liegè, which had been tarred by a climate of crime and corruption. The killing of its leading politician, however, could not be overlooked. The sixty-four-year-old Cools had served as a minister in several governments, as head of the Walloon Socialist Party, and as one of the more powerful and controversial Liegè politicians. Cools was shot in a parking lot near the apartment of his alleged mistress. Pursuant to article 56 of the Belgian constitution, the federal Parliament exercised its right of inquiry and launched an investigation into the murder. The inquiry was headed by Magistrate Véronique Ancia. In her investigation, Ancia uncovered widespread corruption of Belgian officials.

Of particular significance during the 1980’s was the competition among the manufacturing firms Agusta (based in Milan, Italy), Aerospatiale (based in France), and MBK (of Germany). The three companies were vying for lucrative military helicopter contracts with the Belgian government. Likewise, the Dassault Electronique Aviation company of France was competing with an American company, Litton Industries, for contracts involving Belgian air-force fighter planes. The Belgian army had recommended purchase of Aerospatiale’s helicopter, but on December 8, 1988, Defense Minister Guy Coëme announced that the government would purchase forty-six military helicopters (eighteen for reconnaissance and twenty-eight antitank) from Agusta for 11.97 billion Belgian francs. Similarly, Dassault was awarded a 6.5-billion-franc contract to re-equip Belgian air force F-16 fighter planes with new electronic warfare systems. Cools was killed a few years after these contracts were awarded.

The first big break in the investigation into Cool’s killing came with the February, 1993, arrest of Agusta trade representative Georges Cywie. With the statements of Cywie and other witnesses, Magistrate Ancia was able to put together a ten-thousand-page report detailing extensive bribes and kickbacks the Agusta and the Dassault companies had paid to several Socialist parties of Belgium and to Belgian politicians. It was alleged that Cools had been assassinated in connection with these kickbacks.

In July, 1994, three Belgian politicians under investigation in the scandal—Coëme, Guy Mathot, and Guy Spitaels—were compelled to resign from their government posts. The minister of foreign affairs and another government official resigned soon after. On March 5, 1995, a Belgian air force general who was being questioned about the Agusta and Dassault bribes committed suicide. On April 7, the Belgian parliament voted to suspend diplomatic immunity from criminal investigation and prosecution of the highest level suspect, Claes, Willy Willy Claes, who had been minister of economic affairs during the 1980’s and became general-secretary of the North Atlantic Treaty North Atlantic Treaty Organization Organization (NATO) in 1994. Agusta’s former chief executive, Raffaello Teti, who had met with Claes several times to discuss the military contracts, was arrested on October 18 on charges of fraud and corruption. Claes resigned as NATO general-secretary two days later.

The trial of the twelve suspects began in August, 1998, in the court of cassation in Brussels with a fifteen-judge panel. Chief prosecutor Eliane Lienkedael presented evidence that Claes had received payments of $60,000 in 1988 and $125,000 in 1992 directly to his personal bank accounts, although Claes alleged the payments had been received from his wife’s savings. On December 23, 1998, the court handed down its verdict, convicting all twelve defendants. The court affirmed that Agusta and Dassault had paid a total of 110 million Belgian francs ($3.188 million U.S.) to the Socialist parties to acquire military contracts.

Claes was given a three-year suspended sentence for passive corruption and fined 60,000 Belgian francs and barred from politics for five years. Coëme and Spitaels both received two-year suspended sentences for passive corruption, were fined 60,000 francs, and also were barred from politics for five years. Serge Dassault, head of Dassault, was convicted of active criminal corruption and sentenced to two years (suspended) and fined 60,000 francs. The eight other defendants, who had been aides to the above-named politicians and Socialist Party officials, also were convicted of passive corruption and received similar sentences. The Socialist parties were fined millions of francs. In 2005, the European Convention on Human Rights European Convention on Human Rights affirmed the verdicts against the defendants.

In June, 1998, two Tunisian gangsters were convicted by a Tunisian court for the murder of Cools and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Investigators found that the hit men had been hired by a Liegè mafioso for $12,000 to assassinate Cools. In January, 2004, a Liegè court sentenced two persons linked to Socialist minister Alain van der Biest to twenty years’ imprisonment for complicity in the murder of Cools. Van der Biest had committed suicide while under investigation. Other defendants who were found to have assisted in the assassination plan received prison sentences ranging from five to twenty years.


The 1980’s was a troubled decade for Belgian politics. The nation was plagued by corruption and organized crime, while internal rivalries between Walloon and Flemish parties prevented the efficient administration of justice. Charges against Belgian politicians quickly deteriorated into squabbles over bias based on nationality and over allegations that set one group against another. The Nivelles gang atrocities of the early 1980’s, in which twenty-eight people were killed in a string of armed robberies by a well-organized gang with political associations, represented an escalating viciousness in Belgian public life.

The Agusta-Dassault scandal epitomized both the corruption of Belgian politics and a determination to restore order to the country. The cold-blooded assassination of Cools was too much for the country to ignore. In her closing summary of the prosecution case at trial, chief prosecutor Lienkedael condemned the pervasive corruption. Because private contributions to Belgian political parties had been legal until 1989, the case against the twelve defendants had not been an easy one. Only with evidence of money wired to Swiss bank accounts and payments for villas on the Riviera was the prosecution able to show that the payments were bribes, not gifts, and secure convictions for passive corruption. The resolve of the prosecution was echoed by Belgian voters who punished the Socialist Party at the polls and threatened its position in the ruling coalition. Agusta scandal
Dassault, Serge
Cools, André
Bribery;Belgian politicians

Further Reading

  • Braembussche, Antoon van den. “The Silence of Belgium: Taboo and Trauma in Belgian Memory.” In Belgian Memories, edited by Catherine Labio. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. In this work, van den Braembussche argues that Belgians suppress memories of their nation’s history of corruption, including the Agusta-Dassault scandal.
  • Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. A short survey of Belgian history, emphasizing its tensions as a country with two major nationalities, Dutch and French.
  • Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe. New York: Penguin, 2005. In surveying corruption in modern Europe, Judt blames the Agusta-Dassault scandal on divisions in Belgian society, leading to a weakening of constitutional authority and the justice system.
  • Schmidt, Oliver. The Intelligence Files: Today’s Secrets, Tomorrow’s Scandals. Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2005. A publication of the French organization ADI (Association for the Right to Information), with a chapter on the Agusta-Dassault scandal by Michael Quilligan.

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