Belgian Airplane Protest Case: Solidarity Should Not Be a Punishable Act

A Belgian mayor faces charges for his airplane protest against a deportation, but the League of Human Rights says this and other acts of peaceful expression should not be punished.

A criminal complaint has been filed against Saint-Josse Mayor Emir Kir for inciting rebellion on an airplane, after he began an onboard protest against the deportation of a woman.

The complaint was filed at the request of Belgian Home Affairs Minister Jan Jambon and State Secretary for Immigration and Asylum Theo Francken.

'Unbearable violence'

In May, Mayor Kir was a passenger on an Air Maroc flight when he attempted to disrupt the deportation of a Nigerian woman. The woman was said to be screaming and crying, and other passengers joined Kir’s protest.

He later told the press that he and other passengers were responding to the "unbearable physical and psychological violence" suffered by the woman.

The Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH) considers the reaction of the passengers, including Emir Kir, to represent a healthy part of any democracy. LDH also denounces the criminal complaint filed against the mayor.

This type of prosecution criminalizes the peaceful expression of opinion, and often, as in this case, applies to situations which one can legitimately find shocking. In fact, MPs Sofia Bouarfa, Fatiha Saidi and Gisèle Mandaila have all joined Mayor Kir in condemning the actions of authorities in this case.

Disproportionate measures

This type of criminalization may lead to the application of disproportionate measures, including restrictions, such as travel bans, that inflict economic and moral damage (as in the action taken against Fosso Ngajui in 2008).

The threat of a criminal complaint—a threat that has been realized against Mayor Kir—to punish an expression of indignation or act of civil disobedience is a pernicious and unacceptable pressure. It may cause those with legitimate concerns to hesitate in expressing their disapproval.

In a functioning democracy, these citizens and their courageous acts of protest should be taken as examples rather than being punished.

For more, read the interview (in French) with Alexis Deswaef, president of LDH, published by Le Soir on May 22.