Belgium to make time-barring 'very serious' murder and robbery-murder cases impossible

Belgium to make time-barring 'very serious' murder and robbery-murder cases impossible
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Serious crimes such as murder and robbery-murder will no longer be subject to statutes of limitation if they caused serious fear to the population or aimed to disrupt or destroy the basic structures of the country, announced Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne on Friday.

Belgium already makes an exception on the statute of limitations for crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and sexual crimes against minors: these cases can never be time-barred and can always be tried, no matter how much time has passed since the facts. Now, Van Quickenborne wants to add murder and robbery-murder to the list.

"Very serious acts of murder and robbery-murder should never be time-barred because they have such a big impact on society. The statute of limitations in such cases cannot be justified from a social point of view," Van Quickenborne said. "The Justice Department must be able to take place permanently in such cases. Society expects this from justice. With this bill, we want to make this possible."

Statutes of limitation are based on the idea that if a certain period of time has passed since a crime was committed, there is no longer a need for prosecution; it is considered nonsensical to take a shoplifting offence to court after 10 years, for example.

Part of reforming Justice Department

When introducing limitation periods, the legislator intended social peace of mind and a form of legal certainty. However, these exceptions have such a major impact on society that, from a social point of view, statutes of limitation cannot be justified.

Additionally, ever-improving investigative techniques can still lead to a breakthrough in unsolved murder cases after decades. Once implemented, the new regulation could possibly apply to terrorism cases or, for example, the Bende Van Nijvel (Brabant Killers) case.

Still, there are conditions for a certain crime to fall under the category of exceptions: these crimes must be of such a nature that they are either likely to seriously harm a country or an international organisation, to cause serious fear to the population, to attempt to force the government or an international organisation to perform or refrain from performing an act, or to seriously disrupt or destroy basic structures (the political, constitutional, economic or social) of a country or an international organisation.

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Lifting the statute of limitations for murder and robbery-homicide cases is part of a broader bill by Van Quickenborne to reform criminal procedural law, which also abolishes the principle of interruption of the limitation period, making it no longer be possible once the case is referred to the correctional court.

The current limitation periods – minimum six months and maximum 20 years – will also be adjusted to a minimum of one year and a maximum of 30 years. This will of course continue to depend on the minimum and maximum sentences attached to a crime.

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