Julie Van Espen would 'still be alive if justice had taken responsibility,' parents say

Julie Van Espen would 'still be alive if justice had taken responsibility,' parents say
The disappearance and murder of Van Espen was widely reported on in Belgian media. Credit: Belga

The parents of the 23-year-old Julie Van Espen, who was killed in May 2019, have sent a letter to the King and Belgian's most important politicians to ask for measures to prevent more deaths like hers.

"As a family, we are very clear: Julie would still be alive if everyone in the court had taken responsibility," the letter, sent to the royal family and the chairmen of the political parties in Belgium, reads. The parents speak of "gross negligence" that cost their daughter her life, according to Het Nieuwsblad and VRT, which were both allowed to read the letter.

In May, the disappearance and murder of Van Espen were widely reported on in Belgian media. On a Saturday in May, the 23-year-old student left her home in Schilde around 6:30 PM by bike to meet with friends in Antwerp, but she never arrived. Her body was found in the Albert Canal two days later.

The presumed murderer, Steve Bakelmans, who had been arrested for rape two times before, confessed that he killed her after she fought him when he tried to rape her.

In their letter, Van Espen's parents say that it is incomprehensible that Bakelmans was not immediately arrested after he was convicted in the first instance, and that they do not understand that "the total handling of the appeal case was almost 23 months, which is extremely long."

Additionally, the Chamber where the case was to be heard, was closed due to a shortage of Judges. "It is even more distressing that, at that moment, nothing was done with the pending files, including the one of Julie's killer. No redistribution, no screening for priorities. 77 files just stay in the cabinets."

The parents are asking the various political parties to implement the recommendations made by the Supreme Judicial Council (CSJ), which had found various "irregularities" in the handling of Bakelmans’ cases.

First of all, they want the creation of a "Committee J", an external audit body capable of overseeing the overall functioning of magistrates and acting in the event of manifest gross errors and dysfunctions. They also ask for the digitisation of justice so that judgments, judgments and detention records are digital and that there is a crossroads bank for offenders, and the compulsory follow-up and therapy for perpetrators of sexual violence, even if they have served their sentences.

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They want more commitment to raising awereness, the expansion of the care centres for sexual violence, and extensive training on sexual violence for police, prosecutors and judicial assistants. They also ask for cases to do with sex offences to be treated behind closed doors, and adequate resources for the justice department.

"The most important challenge now is to know what will happen with all the recommendations, who will take action and who will follow them," the parents point to the political parties.

"As you have undoubtedly seen and read in the media, Julie is a super enthusiastic and positive daughter who has always made a lot of connections between her friends. Additionally, she has always said that she wanted to mean something for society. Let her death not have been in vain and let us prove that we can take quick and adequate measures across party boundaries so that justice, too, will become an efficient and innovative ministry," they concluded the letter.

"It is their intention that the CSJ's report, and those recommendations, should not remain a dead letter. It is not their intention to make a report and then proceed to the order of the day. They're asking politicians to start working on it," said John Maes, the lawyer of Van Espen's family, Tuesday morning on Radio 1.

"We are in a situation where at some point we have to come to a government and to a policy, including for the justice department. It is important that the points made in the report also get attention in the policy," he said, adding that the parents are not going to just let that go, but that they are going to follow up, and keep pointing out the politicians' responsibility.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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