Belgium criticised for 'new affront on rule of law' on eve of hearing of formerly convicted terrorist

Belgium criticised for 'new affront on rule of law' on eve of hearing of formerly convicted terrorist
Kleine Brogel Airbase, where Nizar Trabelsi planned to attack. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The League for Human Rights criticised Belgian authorities on Tuesday for committing a new affront on the rule of law on the eve of a hearing of Nizar Trabelsi in the U.S. that will take place on Wednesday.

Trabelsi, formerly a professional Tunisian footballer, was tried and convicted to ten years in prison in Belgium in 2004 for planning an attack on US targets including American soldiers stationed at the Belgian airbase Kleine Brogel Air Base.

Importantly, however, under Article 5 of the Bilateral Extradition Convention between Belgium and the U.S., one cannot be punished twice for the same offence (this is known as the principle of 'non bis in idem').

On this basis, Belgian judges ruled in 2008 that Trebelsi could not be extradited to the US for the offences that occurred in Belgium and for which Trebelsi was then serving his sentence. In 2009, the Indictment Division of the Brussels Court of Appeal confirmed this ruling.

However, in spite of these rulings, Trabelsi was extradited to the U.S. on 3 October 2013. Belgium was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for allowing Trabelsi to be extradited the following year.

Trabelsi's lawyers are concerned that the formerly convicted man will be tried for the same offences as those for which he was already convicted in Belgium and served his sentence for, which would be in violation of the legal principle 'non bis in idem.' On the basis of this concern, and faced by the vagueness of Belgian authorities on the subject, the Brussels Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that if the United States authorities were to make Trabelsi stand trial in front of an American court they would be in contravention of the conditions of his extradition.

The Belgian Embassy sent in November a letter to the U.S. State Department stating that the Belgian authorities maintain their previous attitude that Trabelsi can be tried on all charges set out in the indictment which resulted in the extradition process, Belga news agency reports.

"The order (the decision of the Belgian Government setting out the conditions for Trabelsi's extradition) clearly states that Trabelsi can be tried on all the charges set forth in that indictment and that any similarity between the United States case and the Belgian case does not preclude him from being tried on the charges in that indictment," the letter says.

In addition, the Belgian Embassy in Washington affirms that the Court of Appeal is wrong, that the Minister of Justice can do what he wants with regard to extradition and therefore implies that Nizar Trabelsi could be prosecuted and convicted a second time for the offences already tried in Belgium, a statement published on Tuesday by the League for Human Rights explains.

"After his extradition, which violated the most basic rules of international law protecting human rights, [this is] a new affront on the rule of law," the League for Human Rights said.

Belgian authorities have "violated the authority of an enforceable court decision... this new episode confirms fears already expressed in this case; Mr. Trabelsi is the subject of an illicit agreement between the American and Belgian governments, who seem to agree that his whole life is spent behind bars," the human rights organisation added.

Evie McCullough

The Brussels Times

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