Belgium to increase use of plea bargains to combat organised crime

Belgium to increase use of plea bargains to combat organised crime
Under the new law, the scheme can be used in the Court Of Assizes, the trial court which tries the most serious crimes in the judicial system of Belgium. Credit: Belga/ Kurt Desplenter

Belgium's law to encourage informants to collaborate with police and provide key information as part of a plea bargain has only been used twice in five years. Belgian authorities are hoping that simplifying the law will help combat organised crime, drug violence and terrorism.

This weekend, an explosion likely connected to organised crime rocked Antwerp, damaging some 20 homes. The province's large port has become a key entry point for the cocaine trade, resulting in drug-related crime being ever more visible on the city's streets.

Belgium recently announced a national plan to tackle such violence. It is also collaborating with countries from which the drugs are exported and is looking to other countries that have a history of drug-related crime to implement new measures from a legal perspective.

Now, it is considering a law change to expand the use of plea deals to bring ringleaders and entire drug gangs to justice.

Untapped potential

In Italy, this procedure is known as pentiti. It was successfully introduced in the 1970s and helped make important breakthroughs in the fight against the mafia, specifically in the maxi trials in which 338 people were sentenced to a combined 2,665 years in prison.

Belgium already has a scheme in place — the so-called "regrets procedure" — to allow informants in crime circles to give authorities insider information about a certain case in exchange for a reduced sentence or an alternative punishment.

However, in Belgium, this tool has only been used twice since its introduction in mid-2018, most recently by former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri during the investigation into corruption in the European Parliament.

"The current legislation lacks clout because of certain procedural stumbling blocks," said Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, who has designed new draft law with which he hopes the scheme will be used more frequently in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

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The new law would make the regulation much more workable for the public prosecutor's office and the courts. It introduces a negotiation phase before the agreement between the informant and the prosecutor — who makes the final decision when such a scheme is used — to better assess what kind of disclosures could be made.

It would also allow the scheme to be evaluated during pre-trial proceedings — reportedly the time when it can have the greatest added value — and it could also be used before the assize court, where the most serious criminal offences are trialled.

The draft law was approved by the Council of Ministers last Friday and will now be submitted to the Council of State for its opinion. Subject to any amendments, it will then be passed to the Federal Parliament for a vote.

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