What’s going on in Belgium?

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Human rightsBelgiumTerrorismFar-right

Since the Brussels attacks of 22 March I have been a direct witness to the state authoritarianism being put in place without me being able to understand the reasons or the motives.

On Sunday 27 March, as I was preparing to leave the memorial for the victims at the Place de la Bourse, several hundred fascists, “hooligans”, suddenly emerged like a troop of pachyderms, hooded, carrying flares, chanting racist and nationalist slogans and, in some cases, making Nazi salutes.

They brought disorder, trampled on the floral tributes, assaulted people who had simply come to commemorate, all under the watch of the police, who took almost an hour to remove them.

It was an episode as offensive to the victims and their relatives as it was harmful to the country’s image, already tarnished by the outpouring of revelations about the repeated mistakes and the appalling quality of Belgium’s police and intelligence services.

Adding a little more to the national shame, the blatant lack of political courage of those governing Belgium was illustrated through the remarks of the Mayor of Brussels, desperately seeking to shirk responsibility by pointing the finger at other political leaders, as well as the farcical pseudo-resignations of the Justice and Interior Ministers.

On Saturday 2 April, a rally against racism and fascism was organised in response to the fascists’ appearance and to the European call made by the far right group Génération Identitaire to hold a demonstration against Islam in Molenbeek.

On reaching the rally, I bump into a friend and we are immediately confronted by the notorious Superintendent Pierre Vandersmissen. He asks to see our ID cards and invites us to move on. I explain that I am a journalist and that I do not intend to leave straight away. I take out my camera to film the sequence of events.

A few minutes later, the same Vandersmissen approaches the president of the Human Rights League, Alexis Deswaef, who has come alone and is refusing to leave, which is his right as a citizen. He is immediately arrested.

“We are worried about the rolling back of public freedoms and the right of citizens to come and go during this very particular period. The contrast with what happened one week before, when those people [the fascists] were escorted and were practically on first-name terms with Superintendent Vandersmissen, is striking,” said Deswaef the following day on a panel on Belgium’s French-language public broadcaster, RTBF.

Dozens of arbitrary and violent arrests followed. Contacted by telephone about the incidents, the spokesperson for the Brussels police force Christian De Coninck declined to comment.

The International Federation of Human Rights (Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme - FIDH) also reacted by calling for a full enquiry into “the human rights violations committed by the police”.

I was still filming Vandersmissen in action when he gave the order to move me on. I was then told to stop filming, which I refused to do. He asked for my press card. I answered that I did not need a card to do my job and that I could give him proof that I was indeed a journalist.

A police officer then grabbed me by the neck, choking me as he pulled me to the van. Fortunately, I was able to give my camera to someone nearby before being violently carted off.

I’ll spare the details about the plastic handcuffs tied too tightly or the more than six hours we were locked in a cell, during three of which we were not allowed to go to the toilet…

Be it a lawyer, a journalist or any other non violent citizen coming to Brussels to defend diversity, what happened is extremely serious and reveals a worrying evolution in the use of repression and the mechanisms set in place to ensure our ‘safety’.

As Brussels slowly rouses from one of the saddest episodes in its history, it is essential that we remain vigilant, to ensure that the measures put in place to deal with terrorism are not done so at the expense of civil liberties and public freedoms, and that the racist and xenophobic reactions from certain sectors do not prevail over the defence of an open and multicultural society.


This story has been translated from French.