The Brussels prosecutor’s office has instructed police forces to draw up reports of pickpocketing and shoplifting in Dutch as far as possible, to avoid having the cases dropped or the thieves dealt with leniently.
The report comes from a leaked letter from the railway police hierarchy to officers, obtained by Het Nieuwsblad.
Because Brussels is a constitutionally bilingual city, anyone accused of a crime is able to demand they be handled officially in one of the two legal languages – French or Dutch. In addition, the courts have separate sittings for each language.
However because Dutch is very much a minority language among the population of the city, the majority of cases that come to the office of the prosecutor are in French. At that point the language parity enforced by law puts the French-speaking courts at a disadvantage, as they have the same resources to deal with many more cases.
Particularly in the case of what are called petty crimes, the prosecutor now appears to be seeking to redress the balance by asking police to write up their cases in Dutch, so they can be handled by the Dutch-speaking courts, thus relieving the pressure on the French-speaking side.
Pressure which leads, too often, to cases simply being dismissed, or repeat offenders being let off with a stern letter and a fine.
The communication from a deputy prosecutor came in a phone call to a senior officer in the railway police. He later wrote to his personnel.
“The prosecutor is aware that reports drawn up in French do not always receive the appropriate follow-up,” the letter reads.
“He asks us, if a suspect does not speak either of the two national languages, to interrogate them with an interpreter who translates the suspect’s statement into Dutch. The report must also be drawn up in Dutch. The prosecutor explained to me that, if the case report is in Dutch, the suspect can be placed under an arrest warrant and summonsed, because there is almost always room at the Dutch-language hearings.”
The prosecutor’s office, the paper said, admitted that the request had been made, and the reasoning laid out.
“This procedure also only applies to foreigners who do not speak either national language. A French-speaking Belgian will be tried in French. A Dutch speaker in Dutch, that’s the rule.”
Contacted by Het Nieuwsblad, the office of justice minister Koen Geens (CD&V) issued a statement.
“[Minister] Geens has already taken initiatives to reduce the workload in the courts. In March 2019 he said that the justice ministry cannot go on without a budget increase. We applaud the fact that the Dutch-speaking courts want to help the French-speaking ones catch up.”