A special panel of senior jurists has awarded compensation of €83,150 to Bernard Wesphael, formerly a member for Ecolo of the regional parliament of Wallonia, for the time he spent on remand before being acquitted of the murder of his wife.
Wesphael, now aged 62, was arrested in November 2013 after his wife, Véronique Pirotton, was found dead in a hotel room in Ostend. According to Wesphael, she had committed suicide by covering her head with a plastic bag.
Wesphael was suspected of killing her, and he was remanded in custody by a Bruges court. Later, an autopsy ordered by the defence indicated Pirotton may have died from a combination of drugs and alcohol, although it also failed to rule out asphyxiation either suicidal or accidental.
The post mortem results were not enough to see Wesphael liberated, and he remained in custody until he was finally freed on bail in August 2014.
The trial took place in front of a jury in Mons in September 2016 on a charge of murder. On 6 October, Wesphael was acquitted when the jury found itself unable to convict beyond reasonable doubt.
His application for compensation for wrongful imprisonment was turned down in 2019 by former justice minister Koen Geens, on the grounds that Wesphael had displayed “disturbing behaviour” on the night of the incident, and had later offered conflicting accounts of his movements. Those circumstances, Geens argued, made his detention legitimate.
Wesphael appealed the decision, and his case was heard by a special panel consisting of the presidents of the Cassation Court, the Council of State and the Bar Association.
They have now awarded him the sum of €83,150 – €150 for each of the 299 days he spent in prison, plus €38,300 for the costs of his defence and independent analyses.
The sum is considerably less than the €290,000 Wesphael had claimed, but is nevertheless a record sum of compensation. Normally in the Belgian system, the average compensation for wrongful imprisonment is €5,500.
On hearing the verdict, Wesphael made a statement.
“My incarceration was clearly unfair and unfounded,” he said. “I see this decision as a third acquittal after the criminal trial and the civil proceedings.”
In 2018 Victor, Pirotton’s son from a previous marriage, sued Wesphael for damages and lost. He and his father, Pirotton’s ex-husband, were ordered to pay symbolic damages of €1 to Wesphael.