Belgian police tried over Kurdish toddler's death amid widespread calls for justice

Belgian police tried over Kurdish toddler's death amid widespread calls for justice
Credit: SMicholt/Twitter

The trial of a Belgian police officer over the 2018 death of a Kurdish toddler began on Monday, kicking off two days of international scrutiny of Belgium's response to a surge of immigration.

The officer, who has so far remained unidentified, is on trial after having opened fire on a van carrying 26 people, including 2-year-old Mawda and her parents, who were attempting to reach the UK.

The officer's bullet hit the Iraqi-Kurdish toddler in the head, killing her while she was crouching behind the driver's seat with her parents, according to France24.

Highly anticipated by human rights organisations and advocates, the opening hearing on Monday got off to a rocky start due to practical problems, including the court's hiring of the wrong interpreter, RTBF reports.

Two other men, the driver of the van and a suspected people-smuggler, are also on trial and are the only one of the three indicted to have been jailed, with the court in January freeing the officer pending his trial.

The high-speed chase, which took place in March of 2018 and involved several police vehicles, began because police suspected the van was being used by people smugglers.

Appeals from plaintiffs for the officer to be tried for the more serious charge of murder were rejected by the court, and he is on trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Months after the events the policeman's lawyer sent a letter to Francophone daily Le Soir in which the accused said that, at the moment he opened fire, he did not know that more people than the driver were on board the van.

But both the family and public prosecutors said that children were shown through the van's windows in what the family said were attempts to make police stop chasing them.

The officer also said that he was aiming to hit the vehicle's tires but that, when the police vehicle swerved, his shot deviated.

Celebrities join widespread calls for justice

The death of Mawda has underscored what human rights and immigration activists denounce as the horrid consequences of Belgium's criminalisation of irregular immigration.

The affair has drawn widespread condemnation, further polarising the divisive debates over immigration which have roiled Belgian politics for years, and drawn widespread attention and support from well beyond the country's borders.

A range of international personalities such as British filmmaker Ken Loach, Belgium's Princess Esmeralda and famed musicians Roger Waters, Tom Morello and Peter Gabriel have joined calls for justice.

"What circumstances justify shooting into a van full of people?" Loach asked in a video message. "There must be no cover-up in this."

In another video posted to the Justice4Mawda social media, Wauters asked viewers to "make a fuss," and to not "let them sweep the death of this child under a rug."

"It's not her fault that she was born in a country ravaged by war" the Pink Floyd frontman added.

On the eve of the trial, dozens of posters calling for justice for the 2-year-old victim and her family were plastered throughout cities in Belgium.

Additionally, several demonstrations and events to demand justice are taking place in major cities across the country, including Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Leuven and Ostend.

"We denounce the deadly consequences of a policy of criminalisation of migrants, as well as the lies and manipulations of the police and of prosecutors," the organisers of the Facebook page Justice4Mawda wrote.

During the hearing, the court will also scrutinise the interior ministry's policies and the training given to police officers under the anti-people smuggling operation 'Medusa', launched by the previous administration, led by Charles Michel.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.