Photo of the week: Remembering Julie


The murder of student Julie Van Espen has created a firestorm of controversy about the way the justice system handled previous convictions related to the man who confessed to the crime

March on Sunday

Some 3,000 people took part in a candlelight vigil on Wednesday evening on the spot in Antwerp where the body of Julie Van Espen was found on Monday. Van Espen’s body was found by divers searching the Albert Canal after she was reported missing at the weekend.

The vigil followed a tumultuous week for Antwerp’s’ citizens and justice system as it was revealed that the man who killed the 23-year-old student has been free for two years, awaiting an appeal hearing on a rape conviction.

Van Espen left from her home in Schilde at about 18.00 on Saturday, headed to friends in Antwerp on her bike. She never arrived, and a search was subsequently carried out.

Police soon identified a suspect, Steve Bakelmans, from nearby security cameras. He was arrested and confessed to the crime. Van Espen’s body was subsequently found in the Albert canal next to a cycle path that ran under a bridge.

Released awaiting appeal

Bakelmans, 39, had been in prison from 2004 to 2008 for rape. In 2017, he was again found guilty of rape but appealed the sentence.

Two years later, his appeal was still processing, a fact that has led to much anger and disbelief among citizens, legal experts and women’s rights advocates, some of whom are calling for a reform of the system.

“When are we going to start taking sexual violence seriously?” asked Flemish psychologist and sexologist Goedele Liekens on Radio 1. She pointed to the Netherlands as an example. “They go to the root of the problem. You can intervene much earlier than a rape. A rapist has a kind of ‘career path’ that begins with less serious offenses. In the Netherlands, that’s when they intervene.”

A different judge might have taken a different decision, that’s how the law works

- Justice minister Koen Geens

Liekens, famous for her television programmes and books on sexual relations, said that Belgium needs to do the same. “We have got to, in god’s name, intervene faster and earlier. Tackle these violent elements then. We have to encourage more reporting of these crimes and see that they are taken seriously. And of course the punishment must be severe, but not only consist of punishment. We need reintegration, therapy, a change of mindset.”

Commentators are also questioning why Bakelmans was not held in custody while awaiting his appeal. That option, however, is only open to judges if the convicted is considered a flight risk. The judge who decided the case assessed that he was not. Some are now calling for a change in the law that would allow judges to detain those awaiting an appeal if they have committed a serious crime.

Van Espen’s parents and boyfriend plan to file a civil suit against the city for wrongful death, according to their lawyer, John Maes. In filing the suit, they will be allowed to see the files related to the case.

The Antwerp court blamed cut-backs for the delay in processing appeals, to which federal justice minister Koen Geens answered that more of the justice  budget had gone to staff over the last few years.

“The decision to release him on his own recognizance was taken by a judge,” said Geens (CD&V). “As a minister I have to respect that. A different judge might have taken a different decision, that’s how the law works.”

A march to protest sexual violence is planned for Sunday in Antwerp. Van Espen’s funeral is planned for 18 March in Schilde.

Photo: Luc Claessen/BELGA