Amnesty International Report 2004 - Belgium
|Publication Date||26 May 2004|
|Cite as||Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2004 - Belgium , 26 May 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/40b5a1ed10.html [accessed 21 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Covering events from January - December 2003
There were allegations that criminal suspects, demonstrators, asylum-seekers and unauthorized immigrants were subjected to ill-treatment, excessive force and racist abuse by police officers. Fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment in police custody were lacking and there were deficiencies in relevant monitoring, complaints and investigation mechanisms. Four law enforcement officers were given suspended sentences in connection with the death of an asylum-seeker during a forcible deportation operation in 1998. Organizations working for refugees' human rights criticized asylum procedures for excessive complexity, delays, lack of transparency and restrictive interpretation of the definition of a refugee. The treatment of child asylum-seekers continued to fall short of international standards on the treatment of children. New legislation severely restricted the former wide scope of Belgium's universal jurisdiction legislation, increasing the possibility of impunity for the perpetrators. There were continuing concerns about prison conditions, including overcrowding, inter-prisoner violence, under-staffing, inadequate staff training and insufficient external monitoring. There were racist incidents directed against Jewish, Arab and other Muslim communities. Despite numerous initiatives undertaken by the authorities to address violence against women in the family, the majority of women's formal complaints of domestic violence did not result in prosecutions. Measures undertaken to combat human trafficking appeared insufficient in view of reports of a continuing increase in trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation.
UN Committee against Torture
In May the UN Committee against Torture examined Belgium's initial report and expressed a number of concerns relating to the treatment of criminal suspects and demonstrators by police; the detention and treatment of asylum-seekers and unauthorized immigrants, including children; the prison system, including the treatment of juvenile offenders; and amendments to universal jurisdiction legislation. It issued detailed recommendations to address the concerns raised.
There were further reports of police ill-treatment of criminal suspects on the streets and in police stations: many of the alleged victims were foreign and non-Caucasian Belgian nationals and racist abuse was frequently reported in such cases. The reports of domestic monitoring bodies, including the Standing Police Monitoring Committee, the General Inspectorate of Police Services and the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism also reflected continuing allegations of police misconduct, including violence and verbal abuse. None of the internationally recognized fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment in police custody was in place. The UN Committee against Torture recommended that national legislation expressly guarantee the right of all people, whether under judicial or administrative arrest, to have immediate access to a lawyer and a doctor of their own choice, to be informed of their rights in a language understood by them and to inform their relatives of their detention. The government announced the establishment of an inter-ministerial working group to examine aspects of police arrest, including the rights of detainees in police custody. The Committee also expressed concern about excessive use of force during demonstrations and asked the government to ensure that guidelines on the use of force and their implementation were brought fully into line with the Convention against Torture.
Some criminal investigations into alleged ill-treatment by police officers did not appear to be conducted with due diligence: some were unduly protracted and eventual sentences, where issued, were frequently nominal.
- In June, following criminal proceedings lasting some 10 years, the Brussels appeal court found a law enforcement officer guilty of assaulting and racially insulting Rachid N., a Tunisian national, and sentenced the officer to eight months' suspended imprisonment and to pay damages. A first instance court had acquitted the officer in 2002. Rachid N. said he was ordered to strip naked in the presence of 10 officers and assaulted and insulted when he tried to refuse. The first instance court, while not disputing that he had suffered injuries in detention, had said that there was insufficient evidence that the one officer committed for trial was a perpetrator.
Human rights violations during the deportation process
There were reports that people were subjected to physical as well as psychological ill-treatment at various stages of the deportation process. It was alleged that during police raids to search for unauthorized immigrants and rejected asylum-seekers under specific deportation orders, people, including children, were subjected to traumatizing and intimidating treatment. Several asylum-seekers released from detention by court order were immediately transferred and confined to the transit zone of the national airport by police officers and left there for several days or weeks without the basic means of survival.
Allegations continued of police officers subjecting some foreign nationals resisting deportation to threats, racist abuse, physical assault and dangerous methods of restraint, including restraining deportees in positions which could restrict breathing and lead to death from positional asphyxia, despite a specific ban on such methods. There were also reports that in some cases medical treatment for injuries incurred during aborted deportation operations was inadequate and delayed.
The UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about such reports as well as about "the possibility of placing unaccompanied minors in detention for lengthy periods" and of prolonging the detention of foreigners "for as long as they do not cooperate in their repatriation". It was also concerned that people could be deported while awaiting the outcome of final appeals against the rejection of asylum applications and against deportation orders.
Individuals wishing to lodge official complaints about ill-treatment in the context of a deportation operation often faced obstacles, including limited access to appropriate legal advice for those held in detention centres for aliens; fear of reprisals during future deportation operations as a result of threats made by police officers during aborted deportations; very limited time in which to make a complaint before being successfully deported or obeying an order to leave the country; and removal from the country, which effectively closed the option of pursuing a complaint through the criminal justice system.
AI urged the authorities to ensure that, following every aborted deportation, the individual in question should automatically and immediately undergo a medical examination on return to detention. AI called for an independent inspection body to be mandated to make, and carry out in practice, regular, unannounced and unrestricted visits to airport detention cells and transit zones and the so-called INADs centre at the national airport, holding passengers refused access to Belgian territory. AI also called for a review of procedures for complaints concerning ill-treatment during deportation operations, so as to ensure that complainants have recourse to at least one accessible, effective and impartial channel of complaint.
- Parmananda Sapkota said that, on a second attempt to deport him in January, he was taken from Merksplas detention centre to the airport where he told police officers he was not willing to depart for Nepal where he feared he would be killed. He alleged that officers hit him both before and after binding him painfully hand and foot. He was transferred to a waiting plane by van but the pilot apparently refused to carry him and the deportation was aborted. He said the police officers threw him into the van and assaulted him there, and again in an airport room. He claimed that he received inadequate medical treatment for the injuries he incurred. An individual who saw him in detention in February observed that he had a swelling to his face, where he claimed to have been struck, swollen hands, wrists which still bore traces of where handcuffs had been secured, and that he was visibly trembling when describing his treatment. He was deported to Nepal in March, without having lodged any formal complaint about his treatment.
Update – death during deportation
- In December a Brussels court found four law enforcement officers guilty of unconsciously causing grievous bodily harm resulting unintentionally in the death of Semira Adamu, a 20-year-old Nigerian asylum-seeker who died within hours of an attempt to forcibly deport her by air in 1998. Before take-off the officers employed the so-called "cushion technique", a restraint method authorized by the Ministry of the Interior at the time but subsequently banned, which allowed officers, practising caution, to press a cushion against the mouth, but not the nose, of a recalcitrant deportee to prevent biting and shouting. Semira Adamu's face was pressed into a cushion for over 10 minutes and she fell into a coma as her brain became starved of oxygen. She died of a brain haemorrhage hours later. The court sentenced the three escorting officers to one year's suspended imprisonment and the supervising officer to 14 months' suspended imprisonment. All were sentenced to fines, to be paid by the state, which was itself ordered to pay substantial damages to Semira Adamu's relatives. A fifth officer was acquitted. Following the verdict, the Minister of the Interior asked an independent commission, first mandated to evaluate instructions and techniques relating to forcible deportations immediately after the death, to reconvene and carry out a re-evaluation.
Legislation enacted in 1993 and amended in 1999 made provision for Belgian courts to exercise universal jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in international and non-international armed conflict, wherever the crimes were committed and whatever the nationality of the accused and victims. By early 2003 criminal complaints had been lodged directly with investigating magistrates against people from over 20 countries, all residing outside Belgium, in addition to complaints against people found in Belgium. Those facing complaints included past and present heads of state and lower level officials.
Amendments made to the law in April allowed victims to lodge complaints directly with an investigating magistrate only if the case had a direct connection with Belgium, through the victim or the accused, otherwise complaints were to be presented to the federal prosecutor for consideration and possible further action. It also allowed the government to refer certain cases to other countries, if those countries were deemed to offer a fair and effective avenue to justice.
In July, apparently responding to political pressure exercised predominantly by the US authorities, the government proposed legislation, approved by parliament in August, allowing Belgium to pursue complaints of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes only in cases presenting a direct connection with Belgium through the accused or victims. This meant that further action on many criminal complaints lodged in Belgium was effectively blocked. The government gave specific assurances that criminal proceedings relating to crimes committed in Rwanda, Guatemala and Chad, all of which included Belgian victims, would continue in Belgium.
AI country visits
An AI delegate visited Belgium in March.