Belgium’s federal justice minister Koen Geens has been explaining his department’s position on the premature release of prisoners from jails, following the murders of two police officers and one civilian in Liege last week by a man on penitentiary leave. In an interview with Le Soir newspaper, Geens explains why, despite days of deliberation, he decided not to resign his post, and defended the system which allows convicted criminals leave to exit prison for short periods. During one such leave, Benjamin Herman attacked two police officers, took their weapons and shot them dead, then killed a 22-year-old man who happened to be passing by. He was later killed by police.
“The damage for the victims on an emotional level is irreparable, and of course I questioned whether I had made a mistake,” he told the paper. “But on that matter, I was rather convinced the answer was no.”
Although he is technically responsible for what his department does, Geens is not the author of current policy on the matter of penitentiary leave, when a prisoner may be granted one or several exits from prison for a limited time, with a view to re-insertion into society when their eventual release comes.
Amid accusations that it was known that Herman, a petty crook, had become radicalised while in prison, Geens defended his services. “I think their decisions were justified on the basis of the facts they were in possession of at the time,” he said. “But these are always questions of judgement. It’s always very easy to criticise a decision with hindsight, when it turns out in some way to have gone bad.”
Meanwhile Lucile Garcia and Soraya Belkacemi, the two police officers, have been accorded the highest civilian honour, to be given at their funeral in Liege on Tuesday. The Civilian Cross with honours, given for “courage, devotion and humanity” will be handed over by a representative of the king.
Cyril Vangriecken, the passer-by killed by Herman, will be buried in Vottem on Monday.