A photo in the media was all it took to turn the life of the Abbassi family upside down.
On 18 November, the Belgian daily newspaper La Dernière Heure ran a picture of a young man of Asian descent carrying something assumed to be a weapon under his coat, with the headline “An anti-Semitic killer on the loose ?”
The “killer” turned out to be Assim Abbassi, the 22-year-old son of a Pakistani diplomat ; his “rifle”, a cricket bat, as Assim was protecting his bat from the rain on his way to cricket practice.
Assim was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing but this hasn’t stopped his father, Tufail Khan Abbassi, from being recalled by the Pakistan government.
With no job, Tufail, his wife and their five children have all lost the right to stay in Belgium.
Muhammad Jamali, a spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy, told Equal Times that Abbassi had “not been dismissed” but that his mandate at the embassy, which should have ended in July, was extended for a couple of months.
But this explanation was declared “unconvincing” and “false” by the Abbassi family lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier, as well as the Belgian human rights group La Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH).
LDH president Alexis Deswaef told Equal Times that the family saw a fax sent to the Pakistani ambassador to Belgium by the Pakistani authorities “clearly stating that Abbassi has to be sent back to Pakistan under suspicion of terrorism”.
Supporters of the Abbassi family, who staged a protest in Brussels at the weekend, also dismissed the embassy’s justifications.
“Why did they hire my father for six more months, paid for school, gave us all the recommendations to stay in Belgium and now they’re sending us back in the middle of the school year ? I don’t know who to blame for all this – the embassy, the Belgian state, or the media,” Assim’s 18-year old brother Saud told Equal Times during Saturday’s protest.
Commentators have remarked on another worrying dimension to the story.
According to media reports and police sources, the incriminating photo of Assim was sent to the Belgian authorities “by an employee of the Israeli embassy”.
In May this year, four people were killed when a gunman opened fire on the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
Since then, the Belgian authorities have been working closely with Jewish groups and the Israeli embassy to prevent further anti-Semitic attacks.
Though the Israeli embassy in Brussels has refused to confirm or deny that it took the picture of Assim, Deswaef says the embassy “has already admitted that one of its ‘employees’ did”.
“We know what an “employee of the embassy” taking photos means in diplomatic language – they are agents of the secret services and they act outside of the legal framework,” said Deswaef.
He added that the reaction of the Belgian authorities would have been “very different” had the Pakistani embassy been doing the same thing.
“The USA and Israel are the only two countries whose agents acting outside of the legal scope are tolerated. It’s sheer hypocrisy. No questions whatsoever have been asked,” he said.
The role of the Belgian police in this debacle has also come under question.
The photo was set to police in August but was only made available to the media in November.
“What were the authorities investigating for three months ?” asks Deswaef, who is also an active monitor of the Belgian police.
“Had it been a genuinely dangerous terrorist, what would have happened ?”
Rights groups and supporters of the Abbassi family have also criticised the Belgian media.
La Dernière Heure has yet to apologise to the Abbassi family who feel that nothing has been done to clear their name.
“There is a denial of the reality, both in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, about this problem,” says Michaël Privot, director at ENAR.
“The Belgian police refuse to acknowledge the issue. We also want the problem to be acknowledged at EU level and to push the member states’ police forces to work differently, but the EU says it has no competence. The Commission has given positive signs about data collection, but it’s too soon to tell.”
The Abbassi family was supposed to return to Islamabad on Sunday morning but they were prevented from doing so by the deteriorating health of Assim’s mother.
In the meantime, Zoubida Jellab, a politician with the Belgian Green party told Equal Times that all five children would be applying for asylum in Belgium, even though this would prevent them from being able to return to Pakistan.
Another protest in support of the family is scheduled to take place on 4 December in Brussels.