Covering events from January - December 2002

KINGDOM OF BELGIUM
Head of state: King Albert II
Head of government: Guy Verhofstadt
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
International Criminal Court: ratified

There were further allegations that criminal suspects were subjected to ill-treatment and racist abuse by law enforcement officers and that asylum-seekers were ill-treated during forcible deportation operations. Five law enforcement officers were committed for trial in connection with the death of an asylum-seeker during a forcible deportation operation in 1998. There was concern that the treatment of detained child asylum-seekers was not in line with international standards on the treatment of minors. The level of prison overcrowding, together with understaffing and inadequate training, prompted strikes by prison guards. The government advocated prisoner of war status for people held in US custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, unless a competent court decided otherwise, but two Belgian nationals remained detained there without charge or trial or judicial review. There was dismay over court rulings declaring certain cases brought under Belgium's universal jurisdiction legislation inadmissible.


Racist attacks

In March the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted "the satisfactory measures" taken in Belgium "following the events of 11 September 2001 in the United States, in order to promote tolerance between religious communities", but expressed regret at "occurrences of racial acts against persons belonging to ethnic minorities, especially those of the Muslim faith". There was a subsequent increase in racist attacks, including a wave of attacks on Jewish synagogues in April. In May a Belgian known for expressing racist views shot at a neighbouring Moroccan immigrant family, killing the parents and wounding two of the children. It was reported that racial motives also played a part in the fatal shooting of a Moroccan teacher of Islamic religion in November.

In May, in a joint statement, AI and Human Rights Watch condemned racist attacks on both Jews and Arabs in a number of European countries, including Belgium, and called on the authorities to redouble their efforts to combat racism in all its forms and to bring to justice suspected perpetrators of hate crimes. The government publicly condemned such attacks, stating that it would expedite bringing the perpetrators to justice and take all measures to ensure the security of places of worship. A number of initiatives to combat racism and promote inter-cultural dialogue were under way.

Ill-treatment of criminal suspects

There were reports of police ill-treatment, often accompanied by racist abuse in the context of identity checks. Such acts were apparently often committed with impunity.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern about "racist incidents in police stations... where the victims were immigrants and asylum-seekers" and recommended that Belgium take all necessary measures to prosecute such "racially motivated acts of violence".

The Standing Police Monitoring Committee, reporting to parliament, indicated a "worrying" increase in complaints against the police, a substantial number of them relating to insults, racism, xenophobia and physical violence.

The Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism reported that over the previous year it had received scores of complaints against the police, and that skin colour was cited most often as the grounds of police discrimination.

The Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report in October on its visit to various places of detention in Belgium in 2001. The CPT said it had collected allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement officials, usually inflicted at the moment of arrest and involving, in particular, kicks, punches, truncheon blows and abusive use of tear-gas spray. In some cases the CPT collected medical evidence consistent with the allegations. The CPT concluded that the risk of someone being ill-treated by law enforcement agencies during detention could not be dismissed. In particular it called for detainees to be allowed access to a lawyer from the beginning of deprivation of liberty, as a fundamental safeguard against ill-treatment.

  • In October, after repeated delays, the trial began of a gendarme charged with assaulting and racially insulting Rachid N., a Tunisian national, in 1993, more than nine years earlier. Rachid N. said that he was ordered to strip naked in the presence of 10 gendarmes and assaulted and insulted when he tried to refuse. A medical certificate issued within hours of his release from custody the next day recorded multiple bruises. In December the Brussels court acquitted the officer. While it was not disputed that Rachid N. had suffered injuries in detention, the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence that the accused officer was the perpetrator.
Ill-treatment during deportation

There were further allegations that police officers subjected some foreign nationals resisting deportation by air to physical assault and dangerous restraint methods. Some official investigations into such allegations appeared inadequate, with complainants often at risk of deportation while investigations were still under way.

The CPT stated that it had gathered a number of "very worrying" reports concerning restraint methods and the disproportionate use of force during deportation operations via Brussels-National airport. It concluded that these operations involved a "manifest risk of inhuman and degrading treatment". The CPT noted "numerous measures" taken by the authorities to reduce this risk, including the prohibition of any restraint techniques obstructing the respiratory tract. However, it underlined other dangers associated with the methods in use, in particular those relating to "positional asphyxia" and "economy class syndrome". Among other things, the CPT recommended the introduction of a comprehensive medical examination for any foreign national whose forcible deportation had to be interrupted and further exploration of the use of audio-visual monitoring for forcible deportations.

In March AI called on Belgium to re-examine thoroughly its legislation and practice in the area of forcible deportations and to ensure that they were brought in line with recommendations on the protection of human rights during expulsion procedures issued by Council of Europe bodies in the preceding six months.
  • Rafik Miloudi, an Algerian national, claimed that he was ill-treated during several of nine attempts to deport him forcibly between October 2001 and March 2002. After one attempt he said he had received injuries requiring some 40 stitches to his back and two to his right thumb. He said that a doctor who examined him at the airport told him he had inflicted the wound himself but referred him for hospital treatment. In March it was reported that efforts by a private doctor and several members of parliament to visit Rafik Miloudi in prison had been unsuccessful for several weeks. The Ministry of the Interior ordered an administrative investigation into Rafik Miloudi's allegations and he was visited by a doctor delegated by the Ministry in March. A private doctor subsequently examined him and recorded, among other things, three scars and the traces of 46 stitches on his back and traces of two stitches to his right thumb. The administrative investigation apparently concluded that Rafik Miloudi's injuries were self-inflicted and his allegations unfounded. The Ministry of the Interior released him in May, with an order to leave the country within five days.
Updates
  • In March a Brussels court decided that five gendarmes should stand trial in connection with the death in 1998 of Semira Adamu, a Nigerian national, who died after gendarmes pressed a cushion over her face during a deportation operation. Three officers acting as escorts on the plane were charged with deliberately causing grievous bodily harm resulting unintentionally in death. Two officers who had supervised the operation were charged with causing the bodily harm unintentionally through failure to take precautionary measures. No trial had taken place by the end of 2002.
  • In June the Minister of the Interior informed AI that he had requested and received a report from the General Inspectorate of the Federal Police about allegations made by Mohamed Konteh, an asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone, that he had suffered ill-treatment, threats and racist abuse during numerous attempts to deport him in 2001. The Minister stated that "the result of it was that no mistake was made".
Child asylum-seekers

Child asylum-seekers, both those unaccompanied and those travelling with relatives, remained liable to be held in detention centres for aliens for several months. Measures to address the special protection needs of unaccompanied minors and of children in their own right appeared insufficient. Several unaccompanied minors were returned to their countries of origin, apparently without adequate arrangements made for their protection on return.
  • Five-year-old Tabita Mubilanzila was held in a detention centre for aliens for two months before being deported to her country of origin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although no close relatives were apparently available to receive her and her mother was living in Canada as a recognized refugee and reportedly seeking family reunification. Following a public outcry and the intervention of the Belgian Prime Minister, she was reunited with her mother in Canada.
In June the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended, among other things, that Belgium should: ensure that unaccompanied minors are informed of their rights and have access to legal representation in the asylum process; expedite efforts to establish special reception centres for unaccompanied minors; create a guardianship service ensuring the appointment of a fully independent guardian for unaccompanied minors from the beginning of the asylum process; and expand and improve follow-up of returned unaccompanied minors. Legislation establishing a guardianship service in principle, attached to the Ministry of Justice, was promulgated in December.

Universal jurisdiction

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. Under this legislation, complaints were lodged between 1998 and the end of 2002 against people from some 20 countries who were residing outside Belgium, in addition to criminal complaints against people found in Belgium. Those facing complaints included past and present heads of state and lower-level officials.

During 2002 separate chambers of the Brussels Court of Appeal declared three such complaints inadmissible on the grounds that the law was not intended to permit a criminal investigation unless the suspect was in Belgium. One complaint alleged that in 1982 the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Defence, and others, were responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. AI stated that the Court's restrictive interpretation of national law was inconsistent with international law. An appeal against the Court's decision was still awaiting ruling by the Court of Cassation at the end of 2002.

In July, the government approved two legislative proposals which, among other things, would allow investigation and prosecution in such cases, regardless of the suspect's location. They were still awaiting parliamentary debate at the end of 2002.

AI called for any amendment of the law to ensure that Belgium could continue to act on behalf of the international community in investigating and prosecuting the worst possible crimes, when states where the crimes occurred failed to fulfil their responsibilities under international law.

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