Ministers condemn police snooping on confidential interviews
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Ministers condemn police snooping on confidential interviews

Home affairs minister Annelies Verlinden. © Belga

Federal minister for justice and home affairs Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD) and Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) have reacted to news that police in a zone in East Flanders were able to watch and listen while lawyers had confidential interviews with their clients.

As reported by De Tijd yesterday, a security camera in one of the interview rooms of the police station was constantly recording sound and vision, whereas only vision was supposed to be recorded, and even then only on the order or an investigating magistrate or prosecutor. Or at the request of the lawyer in question, perhaps concerned for their own safety.

Conversations between lawyer and client are confidential,” Van Quickenborne posted on Twitter. “Red line of our rule of law. Control body COC did a good job and immediately stopped the practice. Parquet [prosecutor’s office] is investigating the matter. Every police zone must strictly respect this principle.”

Also on Twitter, Verlinden posted, “The right to privacy must be respected at all times in the interrogation room.”

According to the VRT, meanwhile, the police zone in question – which is not mentioned in the report of the Supervisory Body for Police Information (COC) that brought the problem to light – is Erpe-Mere-Lede, near Aalst. The police chief for that zone confirmed that information to the VRT.

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According to a member of the COC, Frank Schuermans, the problem is more likely to be accidental than deliberate.

We are not assuming ill will,” he said. “We have the impression that it happened rather out of ignorance or negligence. It often happens that we go somewhere unannounced and that there are system errors and nobody really knows how to record and store images. We have no evidence to suggest it also happens in other zones, but I cannot rule it out.”

Police chief Luc Lacaeyse agreed with that theory.

It is true that the settings of the video material were not correct,” he told VRT NWS.

That does not mean that conversations were actually listened to. After the visit of the control body a few months ago, the settings were adjusted so that listening in is impossible.”

The mayor of Erpe-Mere, Hugo De Waele (CD&V), backed up his police chief.

I believe my chief of police and my police officers when they say that no conversations have been recorded. Apparently there was a problem due to the new infrastructure, that was completely by accident, and in the meantime it has been resolved.”

Nonetheless, the police zone will undergo an internal investigation, at the same time as the local prosecutor’s office carries out a criminal investigation into what would be a criminal offence if proven.

Not only that, but the convictions of anyone who had passed through that police station in the time frame concerned could also be in jeopardy, as evidence may have been obtained illegally.