Police in Antwerp yesterday carried out 46 house searches leading to 15 arrests, in an investigation of a criminal gang thought to be linked to the scandal of humanitarian visas granted to Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Last month a Mechelen city councillor was arrested and charged with corruption for allegedly demanding payment of up to 10,000 euros for the grant of a humanitarian visa allowing the recipient to apply for asylum in Belgium. The man’s son and a police officer were also arrested later.
The latest series of raids in Antwerp targetted a group of Eastern Christians suspected of involvement in drugs and arms trafficking, as well as corruption and forgery. The gang is also suspected of having a link to the councillor, Melikan Kucam, though whether that included taking a cut of the price charged by Kucam is not yet known.
Kucam, of Turkish roots, is himself a member of the Assyrian Christian community, and a past president of a community organisation. He was also until his arrest a board member of the municipal social aid agency in Koekelberg in Brussels, and has since been suspended.
Kucam, a member of N-VA, was one of several members of a network created by former asylum minister Theo Francken (N-VA) to administer the system of humanitarian visas, which are intended to help people who are in particular danger of persecution or worse, like Christians in areas where Islamic extremists are active. Francken has been accused of reserving the visas for Middle Eastern Christians, and ignoring other vulnerable groups.
The gang rounded up in Antwerp yesterday is thought to have sought to create contacts in powerful circles, among politicians, police, city services, banks and the port of Antwerp. Among the accusations, explained Christel Minne of the Antwerp prosecutor’s office, are several shipments of cocaine through the port. The investigation, the office said, has been under way since November 2017, and yesterday’s operation involving over 300 police officers was not directly linked to the Kucam affair.
Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA) praised the police action. During last year’s municipal election campaign, he had warned of the possibility of criminals infiltrating politics, with some politicians “one click away from criminal activity”. While declining to comment on yesterday’s raids, he repeated that concern. “This shows once more the danger of infiltration, bribery and intimidation by criminal organisations in official circles,” he said.