EU Watch

Police Brutality Remains a Serious Problem in Belgium, Thanks in Part to Judges

The indifference some Belgian judges have shown to cases involving unlawful use of force by police officers is a recurring problem that helps allow the abuse to continue.

by David Morelli
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on July 20, 2017, issued two decisions on friendly settlements that involved Belgian citizens.

What were these decisions about? After years of procedures, the Belgian state finally recognized that the two people concerned with these two different and unrelated cases had been subjected to police brutality, including inhuman and degrading treatment, contrary to the European Convention of Human Rights.

Despite the abuse, Belgian courts had long ignored the victims' complaints (in spite of the fact they were well founded and documented). After years of denial, the state preferred to settle the cases and pay a significant amount of money to the complainants in order to avoid a new condemnation by an international court – and to escape the disgrace that such embarrassing decisions would have caused.

Paying the price

Indeed, it is not the first time European courts have condemned illegal use of force and police impunity in cases involving Belgium. In the well-known case Bouyid v. Belgium, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR singled out Belgian authorities for criticism, condemning police operations that had been considered as perfectly legitimate by Belgian judges, including judges of the country's Court of Cassation.

But Belgium does not seem to have learned its lesson. The state (that is, taxpayers) is now paying a high price for it. On a financial level, after years of procedures and after ignoring the complaints of the victims, Belgium will pay one victim 185,000 euros and the other 15,000 euros in compensation.

Most importantly, in terms of international reputation, these cases place Belgium on the ugly list of countries that tolerate impunity (at least until an international court forces them to do something about it).

Time to end the impunity

The Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH) intervened in one these two cases in order to inform the ECtHR about the difficulties the victims of police abuse are facing in claiming their rights before Belgian courts. On this occasion, LDH drafted an amicus curiae with the aim of informing the Court on the matter and on the main regulatory and practical obstacles that victims of police brutality are facing. A summary of the amicus brief is available on LDH's homepage.

These cases show that the unlawful use of force (racially motivated in one of the cases) and the complacent way some judges treat these cases are ongoing problems in Belgium. It is time that the state puts and end to the impunity of those who damage the police force, by implementing concrete measures, including regulatory measures and training for police officers and judges.

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