Human Rights Watch criticises Belgium’s fight against terrorism

Summary

The federal justice minister has defended the country’s police after HRW accused them of a ‘disproportionate response’ to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels

Responsibility to protect

The fight against terrorism has led the Belgian government to “trample on human rights”, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), with at least 26 documented instances of racism or violence by police.

The 56-page report, “Grounds for Concern: Belgium’s Counterterror Responses to the Paris and Brussels Attacks”, details measures introduced after the Paris attacks a year ago, and further measures introduced after the attacks in Brussels in March. Examples include the ability to detain suspects in isolation for prolonged periods, suspend passports, review telephone and email logs without a court order and revoke citizenship.

It also reports 26 incidences of racial slurs used by police, as well as beatings of suspects. All of the suspects involved were Muslim and all but two of North African origin. Only one person was charged, but the charges were later dropped.

“Governments have a responsibility to protect people from attack and to hold those responsible to account,” said Letta Tayler, author of the report. “But disproportionate responses weaken the rule of law, fuel distrust of the authorities in Muslim communities, and divide society when it needs to unite against groups like Isis.”

In a statement, justice minister Koen Geens said the government’s anti-terrorism policy was “a good middle way between heavy-handed action and respect for human rights”.

Federal home affairs minister Jan Jambon met representatives of HRW after the release of the report, which both sides described as “constructive”. The group called for more diversity within the police force, and for the creation of a national human rights institute to take complaints and log instances of police violence. A spokesperson for Jambon, meanwhile, pointed out that people can make mistakes in stressful situations.

Police representatives said the report spoke of 26 violent incidents, whereas thousands of checks and searches have taken place in the last year. “Twenty-six is 26 too many,” Rudi Moerman of the NSPV union told VRT radio. “The question is whether there is real evidence, because these claims are being presented as if they were proven facts.”

Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA