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Ex-minister denies misleading parliament over visas scandal

Former asylum minister Theo Francken (N-VA). © Belga

Theo Francken (N-VA) has denied misleading parliament over a traffic in humanitarian visas that took place while he was secretary of state for asylum.

The denial comes after allegations published in De Standaard based on surveillance tapes made by police, which the paper obtained.

The tapes and transcripts of other tapes, demonstrate how Francken’s office was aware that irregularities were taking place in the allocation of visas, that Francken ignored clear warnings about what was going on, and that he even went so far as to report untruths to a parliamentary investigation into the affair.

This week a court in Antwerp sentenced Melikan Kucam, a former city councillor in Mechelen, to eight years in prison and a fine of almost €700,000 for his part in a traffic in humanitarian visas allowing vulnerable people in war zones to enter Belgium.

The visas came under the authority of Francken’s office, but Kucam was given virtual carte blanche to allocate them. He did that within the community of Assyrian Christians in war-torn Syria, a religious community to which he himself belonged.

But Kucam was not acting out of a sense of religious fraternity; he was charging visa candidates between €2,500 and €7,500 for a visa, enriching himself, his wife and his son, who were also convicted this week.

According to De Standaard’s investigation (paywall), Kucam was arrested in January 2019, by which time N-VA had left the coalition under Charles Michel, and Francken was no longer secretary of state. However he was questioned by the VRT investigative programme Pano about the traffic that had been taking place while he was in office, and clearly stated that he had never had any indication of anything irregular.

He later told parliament that he had picked up news of a rumour of irregularities on two occasions, which he described as “very vague and rather unbelievable”.

The police investigation, however, revealed that one of those tips had come, first in October 2018, from his fellow MP and party colleague Sophie De Wit, who had been informed by an Assyrian in her home town who had personal knowledge of the traffic.

Francken, however did nothing, did not inform the civil servant in charge of humanitarian visas, and did not instigate an internal investigation. He steered De Wit towards the police, and Kucam was never questioned.

The second tip came two months later, from a senior civil servant and former chief of staff of N-VA minister Liesbeth Homans, who this time mentioned exact sums of money, and the name of Kucam.

Just days later N-VA quit the government, and no more was said until Pano aired its own investigation in January 2019, and the case became public.

Presented with the allegation that he misled parliament with his report of the tips he had received, Francken dismissed De Standaard’s report as “empty suspicions”.

A clear verdict has been delivered,” he said, referring to this week’s court judgement.

Neither any member of my cabinet nor myself have ever been charged in this case. It is completely unacceptable that attempts are made to send empty suspicions into the world by selectively disclosing documents from a confidential criminal file. This is prohibited and damages trust in our rule of law,” he said.

In an interview with the VRT this morning, he expanded on his comment.

My trust was abused. That happened against the background of a major humanitarian crisis. There were no NGOs active in Syria at the time, so we had to work with contact persons. After the conviction [of Kucam], it now appears that I was cheated by one of them.”

Any irregularities in his statements to police or parliament, he explained, came about as a result of a fault of memory.

“At the time the case came to light, I was no longer secretary of state, but I made a voluntary statement in the Chamber,” he said. “I no longer had a staff, and no access to the computers of the immigration department. What I declared under oath to the investigating magistrate was eight months later. But I also made the statement in parliament in good conscience.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times