Belgium Slapped for Police Slapping

Even a simple slap, given by a police officer against a person in custody, violates the dignity and human rights of that person.

In a reversal of an earlier chamber judgment, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has convicted Belgium of human rights violations in a case stemming from police abuse against two brothers.

Saïd and Mohamed Bouyid were slapped by police officers on two separate occasions – in December 2003 and February 2004 – while in custody at a police station in Brussels. The brothers filed a complaint, but Belgian courts refused to find fault with the officers’ behavior. The national courts were not persuaded by the physical evidence, backed up by medical reports and testimony provided by the applicants, of marks and bruising as a result of the slapping.

Strasbourg reversal

The brothers’ original application to the ECtHR was also unsuccessful: the court ruled there had been no violation of article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) of the Convention on Human Rights.

This decision was referred to the Grand Chamber, and in its judgment of September 28, the body overturned the earlier ruling and determined that the actions of the officers had indeed violated the applicants’ article 3 rights. For the Strasbourg court, there was also little doubt that the police had inflicted the documented bruises and condemned the government for botching the investigation.

The Grand Chamber expressed concern that the actions of the police had been trivialized by the national courts, noting, “…a slap inflicted by a law-enforcement officer on an individual who is entirely under his control constitutes a serious attack on the individual’s dignity…” This decision also further consolidates the jurisprudence of the ECtHR regarding reversal of the burden of proof in these situations.

Report police violence

The Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH) says this decision requires Belgium to seriously fight police abuse, which too often remains unpunished. Belgian courts have consistently downplayed the seriousness of the violence suffered by people in policy custody, and this must stop.

Operating since 2013, the LDH Observatory of Police Violence (OBSPOL) collects testimonies from victims or witnesses on its website. The Bouyid brothers used OBSPOL to help bring their case to the ECtHR.

The Grand Chamber’s decision in the case Bouyid v Belgium (app no. 23380/09) is available here.