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Covid-19: New prison rule is ‘a breach of human rights’

Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels. © Belga

New rules in place in prisons in Brussels are a breach of the human rights of prisoners, in particular their right to a fair trial, according to the country branch of the International Prisons Observatory (IOP).

A new rule introduced earlier in the week states that all prisoners brought to a place of detention – including those who have not been tried and convicted – must be placed in medical isolation for 14 days.

According to the IOP, this rule is tantamount to a denial of the prisoner’s right to consult a lawyer, and this at a time when that right is most important, when the person has just been arrested.

According to the rule passed on 11 August from the prisons authority to the Brussels bar, there are several exceptions. A prisoner can be released from isolation if they test negative for Covid-19, or if a doctor approves it.

In the meantime, the isolation means no consultation with a legal representative unless the latter insists, and then provides their own FFP2 mask.

Lawyers are advised, however, to leave a written note for their client informing them how to make telephone contact for a consultation – something which is allowed during quarantine.

This goes against the European Human Rights Convention, which includes the right to a fair trial,” the IOP said. According to the organisation, a written message is an insufficient basis for the preparation of a defence. In addition, there is a risk of violation of professional confidentiality involved with a written message from a lawyer.

The new rule was announced this week after two cases of Covid-19 were found in the prison of Saint-Gilles in Brussels.

Lawyers have reported to us that they went to Saint-Gilles prison to meet their client and were stopped,” said Marie Berquin, one of the two Brussels lawyers looking into the case for the IOP.

They could leave a written message, but we have seen in the past that it sometimes takes two weeks for such a message to be delivered,” she said. “This is shocking.”

The prisons authority, meanwhile, denied there was any block on prisoners’ rights. “Not one of our institutions forbids a prisoner from consulting their lawyer,” said spokesperson Valérie Callebaut.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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