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By Katie Nguyen
BRUSSELS, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Cuban exiles, invoking Belgium's far-reaching war crimes law, filed a lawsuit against President Fidel Castro on Thursday for crimes against humanity.
The complaint, which covers alleged false imprisonment, murder and torture, was handed to an investigating judge at the Brussels criminal court. He will decide whether the case against the 75-year-old Communist leader is admissible.
"No one is above the law and that applies in particular to Castro because for more than 40 years, he has tortured 100,000 of his countrymen," said Larry Klayman, a U.S. lawyer representing 10 plaintiffs.
The case is being brought under a controversial law that grants Belgian courts the right to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses and war crimes, regardless of nationality and where those crimes were committed.
The law is at the centre of an attempt to try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over a 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Lebanon. An appeals court is debating whether Sharon can be prosecuted in Belgium.
Leading the Castro lawsuit was Miami-based Jose Basulto, who travelled to Brussels to personally file the complaint.
While scouring the Florida Straits to rescue Cubans fleeing the Caribbean island in rafters, Basulto's plane came under attack by Cuban fighter jets.
He survived the shootdown but four members of his group Brothers to the Rescue were killed in the asault.
One Cuban agent was convicted by a U.S. court in connection with the shootdown. He was found guilty of conspiracy to murder in an incident that further aggravated relations between Washington and Havana.
"Fidel Castro chose to send his MIGs after us. The act was a premeditated ambush of our planes," Basulto told a news conference.
Klayman added: "What's important is Castro boasted at the time of the shootdown that he was responsible."
Last August, 105,000 people petitioned the United States to indict Castro and his brother Raul Castro on murder charges.
The United States's long-time foe, Cuba is also on a State Department list of states that allegedly sponsor terrorism.
In the wake of devastating hijacker attacks on New York and Washington, Klayman said it was in the "best interests" of the Belgian government to support the case.
"As George W. Bush said, either you're with us or against us," he said.
Castro, who has held power since a 1959 revolution, is the latest in a string of high-profile figures to become a target of complaints filed in Belgium.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel has made clear his desire to amend the law, which blurs the line between Belgium's federal and judicial powers.
The Sharon case has embarrassed the Belgian government, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, and caused Sharon to shun visiting European Union headquarters in Brussels.
"We hope and trust this will not affect the good relations between Belgium and Cuba," Foreign Ministry spokesman Koen Vervaeke told Reuters.
Last August, Belgium headed a European Union mission to Cuba, which aimed to patch up relations that had been frozen for a year after the EU criticised the island's human rights record.