Belgium / Story
Ten men appeared before the military tribunal in Liège on 28 June 1948. They were accused of being perpetrators or co-perpetrators of crimes and offences committed in the Stavelot area against Belgian civilians — 60 men, 47 women, and 23 children — between 18 and 21 December 1944.
The oldest defendant was 27 years old, the youngest barely twenty. In other words, they were young and incredibly fanatical recruits from the last stages of the war. The ten men were captured in Stavelot on 22 December 1944. In addition to murder charges, they were accused of violating the laws and customs of war. Questioned by members of the Belgian War Crimes Commission and by American investigators in early 1945, the defendants confessed before recanting two years later. Most of the defendants were then held in the prison of Saint-Gilles.
To a certain extent, this trial was a continuation of one of the ancillary trials conducted by an American military tribunal in the former Dachau concentration camp between May and July 1946. It concerned murders and abuse of civilians as well as American soldiers committed between 16 December 1944 and 13 January 1945. The severity of the verdict — 43 death sentences by hanging, 22 life sentences, and eight other severe sentences — was controversial and has been etched into memory. The prosecutor was accused of using torture to extract confessions. This context is essential for understanding the challenge facing Belgian military justice. The aim was to demonstrate that the trial was not simply a means of revenge, while respecting the need for justice on the part of the victims' families. During the trial, the defendants also claimed that their confessions had been obtained under duress. Their young age and the fact that they obeyed orders were arguments put forward by the defence. The sentences were much less severe than at the Dachau trial: one sentence of fifteen years, one sentence of twelve years, seven sentences of ten years, and one acquittal. In April 1952, all the convicted were released. The verdict of the Dachau trial itself was overturned. Death sentences were commuted to prison terms and prisoners were also released early.