The family of murder victim Julie Van Espen have announced they will be joining the criminal case as civil parties, which gives them important access to the case files as the investigation continues. “It won’t be easy to read all of that,” said the family’s lawyer John Maes. “But it’s important to know the truth.” The authorities have now turned over Julie’s remains to the family, to allow them to organise her funeral.
Julie went missing on Saturday evening while cycling to meet friends in Antwerp. She was later found dead in the Albert Canal at Merksem on the outskirts of Antwerp. Soon after her disappearance, a man seen carrying her bicycle basket was filmed near the scene. He was arrested for questioning, and later confessed to killing Julie without intending to.
Speaking for both the family and Julie’s boyfriend, Maes pointed out that the family are concerned for the time being with mourning their daughter, and less interested in the many questions surrounding the handling of the imprisonment of murder suspect Steve B. The accused was convicted of rape more than two years ago but walked free pending an appeal – a delay which the appeals court blamed on a lack of staff. “My clients have no wish to involve themselves in that debate,” Maes said. “It is for others to reach the required conclusions, not for my clients.”
The question has led to severe criticism of justice minister Koen Geens, including calls for his resignation. However the very fact that the justice minister has no say in the sentencing of criminals is due to what happened in another murder case, Marc Dutroux was convicted in 1989 on five counts of rape, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. However in 1992 he applied for early release, and his application was granted by then justice minister Melchior Wathelet. Dutroux went on to commit further crimes, including the kidnapping of six girls in 1996, only two of whom survived.
When the crimes became known, Wathelet was severely criticised for his decision. He went on to be a judge in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, but the outcry led to the creation of an independent tribunal on sentencing and parole, and future justice ministers had that responsibility taken away from them.
Meanwhile, the sister of Julie and her friends have written an open letter to Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever calling on him to make a priority out of creating safe cycle paths, including CCTV cameras and better lighting. The city’s mobility campaign Slim naar Antwerpen, the letter says, “calls on everyone to come more often by bike to Antwerp. Julie was a supporter of [the campaign] and advised everyone to do so. She set us all a good example, but it has now cost her her life.” It was only thanks to the camera on the roof of the new sports complex in Merksem, the letter points out, that the alleged killer was caught so rapidly.
In other news, the University of Antwerp, where Julie was studying international relations and diplomacy, today flew its flags at half-mast in her memory. A condolence book for her classmates and friends was also opened.
And justice minister Koen Geens has withdrawn a poster campaign intended for the coming elections, in which he calls for a “tougher response” to crimes of sexual violence. The campaign was organised well before the events of the weekend.