However, a number of restrictions remain in place, for example, teleworking is still mandatory where possible, and the number of participants in different types of public and private events is limited.
Over the last few months, the enforcement of coronavirus-related restrictions in Belgium has raised serious human rights concerns. In a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in April 2021, watchdog Amnesty International reported that
“law enforcement officials resorted to unlawful use of force in enforcing the lockdown measures aimed at protecting public health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular in areas with a high number of people belonging to ethnic minority groups.”
The organisation also expressed its concerns about:
“testimonies and videos showing aggressive and intimidating behavior by police officers against citizens filming police operations. Citizens must be able to document abuse and discrimination in police actions. Filming or photography is an important way for citizens to hold police accountable and document their experience.”
Law enforcement abuse against vulnerable groups in Belgium is not only characteristic of recent months during the ongoing pandemic. In June 2020, The Ligue des Droits Humains analysed 102 testimonies on police violence and concluded that police increasingly follow up lockdown measures in populations that were already struggling before the pandemic. In its publication on 30th April 2021, CERD recommends that Belgium explicitly ban racial profiling, adopts plans of actions against racial profiling, improves data collection and sets up a system for the registration of complaints. Belgium must also take action to promote diversity within the police force.
The current rules for public gatherings allow for a maximum of 200 people for dynamic demonstrations and 400 for static demonstrations. Permission for any given demonstrations must be requested from the competent municipal authority. Participants must practise social distancing and wear a face mask whenever it is impossible to ensure compliance with social distancing rules.
On 1st May 2021 police broke up a party in a park in Brussels. About 2,000 mostly young people gathered in Bois de la Cambre, the city’s largest park, to protest COVID-19-related restrictions. The event, which was announced on social media, did not receive authorisation. Police dispersed the crowd by employing tear gas and water cannons and detained 132 attendees. Olivia Venet, president of the Ligue des droits Humains said:
“The police can use force, they are also the only ones able to use force, but this force must pursue a legitimate aim, be strictly necessary, limited, and proportionate. What I saw in the videos leaves me with doubts. The use of pepper spray is a non-lethal force, but it is force.”
This party protest, named ‘La boum 2’ came one month after a similar protest. On 1st April 2021, people gathered in Brussels’ Bois de la Cambre for a fake festival called ‘La boum’ following an announcement shared on Facebook. Although organisers clarified multiple times that the event was just an April Fools’ joke, a large crowd gathered in the park. Most participants were not wearing masks or respecting social distancing rules. The police started to clear the park around 5 pm and once some attendees refused to leave and threw bottles at them, they used water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the crowd. During this event 22 people were arrested. The mayor of Brussels, Phillipe Close tweeted that they cannot tolerate events like this after having seen the efforts of the vaccination centres to fight the virus. “Those who do not follow orders of the police run the risk of being arrested and prosecuted.” Close thanked the police for their work and the people who had followed the COVID-19 related measures throughout the year.
A journalist reported that while he was covering the event titled La boum on 1st April 2021 he was insulted on multiple occasions and people shouted ‘merdia’ or ‘journaloupe’. Ten days earlier a team from the #Investigation TV show were harassed on the sidelines of a demonstration against the ‘health dictatorship.’ Protesters shouted “Get out! You have nothing to do here” and “I am not talking to you dirty bitch” after a journalist defended her right to be there. A policeman advised the team to leave for their own safety. Public service broadcaster RTBF reports that such incidents have multiplied in recent weeks to an extent that they are no longer sending reporters or cameramen to demonstrations alone.
There have been other incidents documented during this period:
- On 6th May 2021, police searched the home of Belgian journalist Dirk Selis, which was approved by an investigating judge, after the journalist published an article revealing that the mayor of Sint-Truiden, Veerle Heeren, had cut the line for the COVID-19 vaccine. The mayor complained about a "breach of medical secrecy".
- On 10th May 2021, a criminal court sentenced reporter Bart Aerts, who works for the Flemish public broadcaster VRT, to a suspended four-month prison term for broadcasting wiretapped phone conversations during the judicial investigation into the so-called "Castle murder". In 2016 the journalist made a documentary, which featured the recordings of wiretapped phone calls between the family of the victim and people within the justice system. The Flemish Association of Journalists (VVJ) denounced the court ruling as "a dangerous precedent".
"The fact that a conviction now follows, after a search and seizure of a journalist's equipment, is very dangerous for all journalists. Bart Aerts did not intend to cast a bad light on the Saelens family or to influence the investigation. He did want to ask a number of valid questions about a socially relevant file." - general secretary Pol Deltour of the VVJ.
- News website Apache had to take down an article after a complaint was filed in an Antwerp court by project developer and lobbyist Erik Van der Paal for ‘breach of privacy’ and ‘slander’. Van der Paarl has a track record of filing suits against the news site.
- On 24th May 2021 the DPG Media building in Antwerp was temporarily evacuated after a bomb threat. A participant from the Dutch right-wing extremist group called the "Dutch Anonymous Freedom Fighters" informed the police about the threat which was announced on the group’s Facebook page. Police are investigating the matter.
- On 25th May 2021, Belgian journalist Samira Atillah spoke out about ongoing intimidation and threats she was facing for her journalistic work and as a result decided to take a break from Twitter. The journalist, who has worked for investigative platform Apache and the national paper De Morgen, had faced racist attacks and death threats via social media. The complete tweet reads:
"I'm getting off Twitter for a moment. A lot of people tell me I shouldn't care about the intimidation, but I've been going through this for years, and recently it's getting worse. This is not to say that people manage to intimidate me. It is true that I am only human."