Demonstration against police brutality: Belgium sued over severe use of force against protestors

Demonstration against police brutality: Belgium sued over severe use of force against protestors
The demonstration "Stop the class justice, stop the racist justice" on 24 January 2021. Credit: Belga/ Nicolas Maeterlinck

On this day two years ago, a demonstration took place in Brussels against police brutality, after which, ironically, stories of repression and serious police violence emerged. A civil action will now be filed by victims over the abuses they faced.

On 24 January 2021, a 45-minute demonstration against class and racist justice took place in the city centre of Brussels. The city had originally tried to block it but later relented. Despite the demonstration's final approval, more than 200 people were arrested and locked up.

Several people, including minors, testified to illegal and arbitrary arrests, sexist and racist insults and brutality committed by the police, resulting in an internal investigation, while the public prosecutor's office and the Comité P also opened an investigation. The police union (CGSP/ACOD) complained that colleagues had gone too far during the demonstration.

Two years to the day after these incidents took place, 11 young people are filing a civil action against the Belgian State, the police zone Brussels-Capital Ixelles and the Mayor of the City of Brussels and the head of the police zone, Philippe Close, for the police abuses they suffered, the Ligue des Droits Humains (LDH, League for Human Rights) announced on Tuesday, adding it is joining the action.

Police arrested more than 200 people, including many minors. Credit: BelgA/ Nicolas Maeterlinck

"This legal action aims to obtain compensation for the damage caused by the various cases of abuse suffered, including ethnic profiling, the use of the encircling technique and abuse in the cells," a press release from the League read, adding that it is not the responsibility of the officers but that of the institutions that allowed these abuses that are being challenged.

Ethnic profiling

The 11 young people said they were mistreated during their arrest, crammed into police vehicles without any respect for the Covid-19 measures, adding they witnessed physical violence by the police against people who were with them. Some were arrested solely on the basis of ethnic profiling, while others were arrested even though they had not participated in the demonstration.

The claim specifically mentions controversial repression techniques, such as the encircling technique — where protesters are surrounded and completely shut off from others — which is largely illegal in France and is also restricted by the European Court. However, in Belgium, there is no legal framework for it.

"We believe that the freedom to demonstrate cannot be restricted in this way and that the legitimacy of this practice should be questioned", the LDH noted.

The Brussels police have a reputation for responding violently and have in the past been criticised for their racial profiling. Credit: Belga/ Benoit Doppagne

The conditions faced by the detainees at the Etterbeek barracks, which had no surveillance cameras in place, were also criticised. "The conditions of detention of the applicants were also abusive: denial of access to sanitary facilities, promiscuity, and fear resulting from violence being administered to other detainees."

LDH said the action should force the Belgian state and police forces to determine under which conditions riots on the fringes of demonstrations are managed in the future to prevent violations.

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It also called for a system of regular visits by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty to "prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," arguing this could have prevented such abuses. "The death of Sourour A. and those before her, including Ilyes A. and Mohamed B., show the urgency to put this mechanism in place."

Meanwhile, the intention of the victims is to create a legal precedent to avoid similar abuses in the future and to ensure this form of an arbitrary arrest does not go unpunished. In parallel to this civil action, another criminal action concerning other complainants is still under investigation.

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