Belgian exporters found guilty of sending chemicals to Syria

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A Belgian court has found three businesses and their owners guilty of shipping 168 tons of a substance potentially used in the making of chemical weapons to Syria between 2014 and 2016 without submitting the appropriate export licenses.

The Penal Court of Antwerp fined AAE Chemie Trading, a wholesaler, Anex Customs and Danmar Logistics between €75,000 and €500,000 for exporting high purity isopropanol to buyers in the war-torn state.

Rolf Rippen, a manager at AAE Chemie Trading, was sentenced to four months in jail. Herman Van Landeghem, a manager for Anex Customs and Danmar Logistics, received a 12-month prison sentence, a court official and a defense lawyer confirmed.

“This morning there was a conviction of three companies and two managers in relation to the exporting of chemicals to Syria,” said Wendy Verhaegen, a spokesperson for the court.

The verdicts come after a yearslong investigation into the activities of the companies by the Flemish magazine Knack and German NGO Syrian Archive, which uncovered the flows of isopropanol to Syria using the U.N. trade database Comtrade.

The export of a potentially dangerous chemical, used in products such as the nerve agent sarin, breaks EU legislation adopted in July 2013 prohibiting the “transfer or export, directly or indirectly” of equipment, goods or technology “which might be used for … the manufacture and maintenance of products which might be used for internal repression.” There is no evidence that the chemicals have been used in chemical weapons, or whether they were used in other common products such as paint or cleaning agents.

“The court today sends out a strong message to the world that the export of possibly dangerous chemicals without appropriate export licenses does not go unpunished,” said Kristof Clerix, a journalist at the Belgian weekly Knack, who has followed the case.

“But,” he added, “not only the companies are to blame in this case. Obviously the Belgian customs did not do its job. This has been revealed by an internal audit that we got hold of and that shows all the weaknesses in the control system regarding sensitive exports.”

Joris Vercraeye, a lawyer representing AAE Chemie Trading, said his client did not know about the rules requesting exporters to obtain a special license for the export of isopropanol. Not once, he said, did customs authorities make any objections to the shipments, leading his client to believe he was doing nothing wrong.

“He did not do that on purpose,” Vercraeye said. “Finally, what is very important also is that none of the products have ever been used to make any kind of product used for criminal actions.”

Erik Gevers, a lawyer representing Van Landeghem, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts.

Pieter Borms, a lawyer representing customs authorities in Antwerp, declined to comment.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch lawmaker and member of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said that companies not respecting sanctions and trade restrictions in the EU was leading to a huge deficit in Europe’s credibility when trying to act tough on the regimes in Syria and Russia.

“As we speak, Belgian, Flemish chemicals exporters have been held to account for violating EU export licensing requirements … I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to understand that exporting chemicals to Syria is a problem and these companies should know better,” she said.

She noted the recent invitation of a blacklisted Syrian intelligence official to Rome, the use of European companies in the building of the Kerch Strait Bridge between Russia and Crimea, and the selling of surveillance systems to dictators around the world as examples of a lack of enforcement in the EU’s  trade and sanction regimes.

“The number of instances that we see here show that we have a systematic problem,” she said. “I don’t even want to think about the impact of breaches of sanctions without consequences have in Damascus or Moscow.”

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