Kristof Clerix (°1978) is an investigative journalist for the Belgian magazine MO*.
Belgian diplomat suspected of espionage
The Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs has called back a Belgian diplomat from his post in Copenhagen on the suspicion of espionage. Consul O.G. from Bruges, who during 25 years had been in contact with the Russian secret services KGB and SVR, was suspended ‘in the interest of the service’. The Federal prosecutor’s office has launched a judicial inquiry.
The Belgian State Security VSSE suspects that O.G. (57) already during his studies –Slavic languages at Ghent University and an additional course at the reputed College d’Europe in Bruges– was spotted by the Russian secret services. During his first post as a Belgian diplomat abroad –consular employee at the Belgian embassy in Tokyo– O.G. was approached by the KGB.
End of the eighties, the “détente” between East and West had already started but the Berlin Wall was still upright. At a reception in Tokyo O.G. acquinted a Russian diplomat, Vyacheslav M. A conversation between expats in diplomatic circles is nothing out of the ordinary. But what O.G. didn’t know, is that the friendly Russian in fact was a KGB intelligence officer of the Line N, the department specialised in setting up covers, legends and fake identities.
Backdoors in the law
To set up false identities the Russian secret services explore a wide range of possibilities. One way is to “activate” a deceased person –the socalled dead double. Another way is to make a false inscription in the National Register, e.g. by declaring a birth at a consulate in an exotic country.
The Russian spies of Line N look for backdoors in the citizenship legislation of different countries. When Belgium launched a new citizenship law in 1986, Line N of the KGB sent a spy to Brussels under diplomatic cover with the task to study the new legislation: Valery. His misson was to find out whether this new law could help to document “fake Belgians”.
To understand the full complexity of the legislation, the KGB needed additional explanation. In several Belgian cities, it contacted officials of the civil affairs department (‘Burgerlijke stand’), the Belgian State Security found out. Next to that the Russians also tried to appeal to the expertise of Belgian consular representations abroad. In this framework, O.G. was approached in Tokyo by the KGB for the first time.
More than friendly visits
Fast forward to 2011. When O.G. is sent to Denmark as a Belgian diplomat, the State Security is informed by friendly intelligence services about the contacts between the consul and Russian intelligence officers. The State Security launches an intelligence inquiry and traces back the steps of O.G.
After Tokyo, O.G. worked as a diplomat in Lagos, Algiers, Lissabon, New York, again Lagos, New Delhi and Copenhagen. The State Security found out that in the majority of those cities O.G. had been contacted a few times per year by Russians travelling through the country.
The very fact that the contacts had been taking place in several continents and during such a long period made the State Security suspect that they were more than just “friendly visits”. The State Security assumes that during his meetings with the Russians O.G. provided them with information on consular questions and judicial quibbles that could be useful for the spies of Line N.
The key question is whether O.G. was aware of the character of the meetings: did he know whom he was talking to? O.G. claims the meetings were sheer professional contacts on consular cooperation. He also argues that he has never transfered classified information or visa nor has receieved any money from the Russians.
What the Belgian consul didn’t know, is that the friendly Russian in fact was a KGB intelligence officer of the Line N, the department specialised in setting up covers, legends and fake identities.
That O.G. only knew his Russian contacts by their first name, and that the initiative for meetings always came from their side, should have rung a bell, according to the Belgian State Security. It found out that O.G. over the years had been in contact with different Russian handlers, and that those contacts lasted until 2011.
By using Special Intelligence Methods (“BIM”) the State Security discovered that O.G. recently had been contacted by Valery –the Russian who two decades ago was sent to Belgium in order to study the citizenship legislation and who was present in Belgium unannnounced.
In the Summer of 2011 the State Security showed its dismay. Alain Winants, head of the State Security, summoned the accredited representative of the SVR in Brussels. Immediately the affair had an impact on the relations between the Belgian and Russian secret services. Russia had been willing to deepen cooperation with the Belgians in several spheres, but because of the espionage affair the State Security backed off.
Also the Belgian ministry of Foreign Affairs protested. Dirk Achten, president of the board of directors, summoned the Russian ambassador. Achten also called back O.G. from his post in Copenhagen and suspended him ‘in the interest of the service’. Foreign Affairs filed an official complaint and the federal prosecutor’s office launched a judicial inquiry. Also the State Security –through the president of the so called BIM-commission (that has to approve the use of Special Intelligence Methods)– contacted the prosecutor’s office.
‘We can confirm that a judicial inquiry has been launched concerning a Belgian diplomat on the suspicion of espionage, passive corruption and violation of professional secrecy’, federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle confirms. ‘We cannot go into further detail.’
Investigating judge Pottiez from Bruges is in charge of this judicial inquiry by the federal prosecutor’s office; the State Security is involved as expert.
Has O.G. violated any Belgian law?
The Belgian espionage legislation –article 118 of the Penal Code– dates back to 1934 and punishes ‘he who transfers to a foreign state objects, plans, notes or intelligence that have to be kept secret in the interest of the defense of the territory or the outward security of the Belgian state’.
Federal prosecutor Delmulle: ‘The present judicial arsenal concerning espionage is hopelessly outdated. Mr Winants, head of the State Security, recently claimed that hundreds of spies are active in Brussels. A parliamentary debate is welcome on what anno 2012 is considered to be espionage and what should be punished. A reflection on this topic is needed, especially bearing in mind the presence of numerous international institutions on Belgian soil, such as the NATO or the institutions of the EU.’
Also the State Security advocates a more modern definition of espionage.
Can O.G. be prosecuted for passive corruption or violation of professional secrecy? The judicial inquiry is still ongoing, so it’s not clear whether O.G. will be prosecuted at all.
On top of that the question rises whether the facts are not too long ago to be prosecuted.
The fact that O.G. has not been arrested after a house search and three hearings by the judicial police could point to the fact that the evidence is inconclusive.
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