The daily body searches that defendants had to undergo at the 22 March 2016 terror trial are now banned, the Brussels interim relief judge has ruled.
The information, shared by VRT Nieuws, was confirmed to Belga News Agency on Thursday by the French-speaking court of first instance in Brussels. The judge did, however, endorse the practice of blindfolding defendants during their transfers.
Since the beginning of the trial of the Brussels and Zaventem attacks, the detained defendants have complained about the conditions of their transfer from the Haren prison to the Justitia, where the hearings take place. They were strip-searched, made to genuflect and blindfolded during the transfers.
In the early days of the trial, loud music was also played during the journey, but this was abandoned after being denounced by the defence.
Judge deems strip searches degrading treatment
As these transfer conditions did not allow for a calm debate, the lawyers of six of the accused - Mohamed Abrini, Sofien Ayari, Salah Abdeslam, Bilal El Makhouki, Ali El Haddad Asufi and Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa - filed suit against Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne. The defendants also protested by leaving their boxes several times during the hearing in recent weeks.
A meeting between the parties involved, including the defence lawyers and the federal police, failed to reach an agreement. The Belgian State defended itself by arguing that these methods were “devoid of any denigrating character” and were “solely dictated by the security interest” of the trial.
This view was not shared by the interim relief judge, who considered that the systematic strip searches, which are done daily and are expected to last, like the trial, for several months, constituted degrading treatment and therefore a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judge also noted that the strip searches were not justified from a security point of view, given all the measures taken for this extraordinary trial. In this regard, he emphasised that the Belgian authorities had not demonstrated how the detained defendants constituted a threat.
Blindfolds are a security requirement, Court says
On the other hand, blindfolding the defendants during the transfer does not constitute degrading treatment and is a security requirement, the interim relief judge ruled.
The Belgian State can appeal the decision, which is immediately enforceable. It has eight days to comply with the decision, under penalty of fines of €1,000 per offence, up to a limit of €50,000 per defendant.
“We take note of the decision, and we shall respect it, we shall take the necessary measures to do so,” the Justice Department commented. However, it added that it reserved the right to appeal, after an “in-depth analysis” that will be carried out with the Interior Department and the police, from both a legal and a security perspective.
“No further comment at this stage, other than that we continue to be committed to ensuring that the trial takes place as calmly as possible,” the Justice Department said.