Belgium - Amnesty International Report 2007

Human Rights in KINGDOM OF BELGIUM

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Head of state: King Albert II
Head of government: Guy Verhofstadt
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
International Criminal Court: ratified

Poor conditions in immigration centres and police ill-treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers continued. Migrant minors were held in closed detention centres for illegal immigrants and failed asylum-seekers. Irregular migrants occupied public buildings and went on hunger strike to support demands for legislative reforms. The murder of a woman and child in Antwerp and other incidents reflected the persistence of racist violence. Overcrowding and sub-standard prison conditions prompted strikes by staff. New evidence indicated that secret US flights may have landed on Belgian territory. Belgium became the first country to ban cluster bombs.

Asylum and immigration

New asylum laws in July required new asylum petitions, including appeals, to be processed within 12 months. The asylum procedure was reformed to grant subsidiary protection for those not covered by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention but who risk serious rights violations if they return to their country of origin. However, the new legislation did not address the situation of irregular migrants. The number of asylum applications continued to decline.

Throughout 2006 a number of churches and public buildings were occupied by irregular migrants and failed asylum-seekers demanding regularization of their situation, an end to expulsions and the shutting down of closed detention centres. The government regularized the status of many of the migrants who occupied the church of Saint Boniface in Brussels in February and March. In May, there were hunger strikes in four asylum reception centres.

Migrant children continued to be detained in closed detention centres in violation of international law.

Police ill-treatment

Police officers allegedly ill-treated individuals being forcibly deported.

On 1 August a third attempt was made to expel Hawa Diallo, a failed asylum-seeker from the Republic of Guinea, but was aborted after passengers disembarked in protest at her treatment. The evening before, she had been separated from her 19-month-old baby until the time of the flight. The five police officers accompanying her were reported to have assaulted and racially insulted her. Following the failed deportation, she was freed under orders to leave Belgium within five days. From hiding, she lodged a complaint of ill-treatment with the Permanent Commission for Control of Police Services.

In a landmark ruling on 12 October the European Court of Human Rights found that Belgium was in violation of the prohibition of inhuman treatment and right to respect of private and family life guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2002 an unaccompanied five-year-old asylum-seeker had been detained and subsequently deported unaccompanied back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, her country of origin, where there was no family member to meet her.

Racism and discrimination

Under a March directive, the police started to record crimes motivated by racism. The Centre for Equal Opportunities said it received 1,000 complaints of racism a year, noting that many attacks were never reported.

In April, Daniel Féret, president of the National Front party, was convicted of inciting racial hatred and sentenced to 10 years' exclusion from political office and 250 hours of community service. He had distributed election materials likening immigrants to criminals, savages and terrorists. The National Front's website manager was also convicted and fined. The court did not order dissolution of the party for lack of evidence linking it to the offending texts. The Court of Appeal confirmed the conviction in October.

On 11 May an 18-year-old resident of Antwerp shot and killed a pregnant black woman and the white child in her care, and seriously wounded a Turkish woman. He openly stated that he had targeted foreigners. Preliminary investigations were concluding at the end of 2006, but the trial date had not yet been fixed.

'War on terror'

In March press reports alleged there had been at least two secret flights by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that landed briefly at Deurne airport in Antwerp in July 2002. It was not known whether the planes were transporting detainees. An investigation by the European Parliament found that, of 1,080 stopovers by suspected CIA flights in Europe, four concerned Belgium. A Belgian Senate committee in July found there was insufficient supervision of operations by foreign intelligence services on Belgian territory, making it impossible to ascertain the destination and purpose of such flights.

Prison conditions

Prisoner numbers reached a new high. One third of prisoners were on remand. Specialized centres for minors were overcrowded, and juvenile offenders were sometimes held in mainstream prisons. A law on youth assistance passed in May included plans to construct a special prison for 200 juvenile offenders.

In April the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported allegations of ill-treatment in police custody. The Committee condemned overcrowding at the psychiatric unit in Namur prison, cage-like cells at the law courts in Liège, and poor conditions for people refused admission to the country at the detention centre at Brussels airport.

In April there was a strike at Forest prison in Brussels. The GCPS (public services trade union) attacked prison overcrowding, poor conditions, buildings it considered breached health, hygiene and safety requirements, and the "wholly insufficient" six-week basic training for staff. In August staff at the prison in Termonde went on strike in protest at overcrowding and understaffing following the escape of 28 prisoners. In September they renewed strike action, claiming that promised improvements had not materialized.

Arms control

Belgium became the first country to ban cluster bombs when Parliament adopted a law banning their production, stockpiling, transportation and trade on 8 June. In 1995, Belgium was the first country to prohibit anti-personnel landmines.

AI country reports/visits

Report

Europe and Central Asia: Summary of Amnesty International concerns in the region, January-June 2006 (AI Index: EUR 01/017/2006)