Dries Van Langenhove, founder of the far-right youth group Schild & Vrienden and newly-elected member of parliament for Vlaams Belang, has been charged by the prosecutor’s office in Ghent with hate speech, breaches of the laws against negationism and firearms offences.
Van Langenhove (pictured), as a member of the federal parliament, would normally enjoy parliamentary immunity against prosecution, which would have to be lifted by a vote in the chamber before he could be prosecuted. However he has yet to take the oath which is the last step before becoming an MP, and the prosecutor has explained that the case against him dates back to before the election, and concerns matter which took place when he was an ordinary member of the public.
That position is likely to be challenged in court, though the objection would be a formality: there is little doubt that a motion to lift his immunity would be successful when brought before parliament.
The case against him was launched in September last year when the VRT documentary programme Pano broadcast a film about Schild & Vrienden, whose members were alleged to have a closed discussion group online. In these groups they exchanged messages of a racist, sexist and anti-Semitic nature. Police then carried out searches at the homes of some members, among them Van Langenhove himself, and seized computer material.
The evidence was later returned to him, and he was not questioned at the time. He has now been charged with breaking the law on racism, on negationism – denying the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews in general – and the law on carrying a firearm.
The charges were immediately condemned by Tom Van Grieken, president of Vlaams Belang, as politically motivated, and an attempt by the justice system at “political intimidation”.
Van Langenhove’s lawyer, Johan Platteau, questioned why the prosecution only decided to interrogate and charge him now, three days before he is due to take the parliamentary oath, when he has been willing to cooperate with the investigation since it began last year.
“He is ready to explain everything, and wants a thorough investigation,” Platteau said. “He considers he is not responsible if a friend should post a message, for example.”
The investigating magistrate in the case has ordered Van Langenhove himself not to comment on the case, and to take part in a conducted tour of the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, the site of the deportation of thousands of Jews and Roma during the Occupation, which now houses the memorial and museum of human rights and the Holocaust. Van Langenhove is willing to comply, his lawyer said.
Meanwhile Unia, the federal equal rights centre, has said it may join the case against Van Langenhove as a civil party. And Ecolo co-president Zakia Khattabi has asked that he be removed from the podium for the oath-taking of members of parliament later this week. Traditionally, the speaker of the parliament is assisted on that occasion by the two youngest members, who happen to be Van Langenhove and Melissa Hanus of PS.