BRUSSELS (Reuters) - One of Belgium's best known politicians, a former party leader nicknamed "Steve Stunt" for his populist gestures, was found drowned in a canal on Thursday, hours after media reported he would stand trial for rape.
Robert "Steve" Stevaerts, 60, had been leader of the Flemish Socialist Party and a protege of Willy Claes, a veteran cabinet minister who was secretary-general of NATO for a year before he resigned in a bribery scandal in 1995.
Current SPA party leader Bruno Tobback confirmed the death in a statement after public broadcaster VTM said police had pulled Stevaerts' body from the Albert Canal near the eastern city of Hasselt.
The long-time bar owner had once been city mayor and until 2009 regional governor. His introduction of free public transport in the 1990s prompted sceptics to call him "Steve Stunt".
Belgian media said Stevaerts had denied accusations brought against him two years ago by a woman alleging he had raped her in 2010 after they met on the set of a TV show. A police inquiry had been kept under wraps until media reported on Thursday that a judge had ordered him to stand trial.
Eliot Di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party who was Belgian prime minister until last year, said he was "shocked" by Stevaerts' death and urged police to bring all the circumstances to light.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Andrew Roche)