Belgium has enacted a raft of problematic counterterrorism laws and its police have carried out heavy-handed operations in the past year, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Those responsible for horrific attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and in Brussels on March 22, 2016, the deadliest in those countries in decades, were linked to Belgium.
The 56-page report details measures that place prisoners detained for terrorism in prolonged isolation, and allow the government to suspend passports and review terrorism suspects’ phone and email logs without judicial approval. Other laws can revoke Belgian citizenship and criminalize comments that stop short of direct incitement to terrorism. It also details abusive police responses during counterterrorism raids and detentions.
“Belgium has worked hard this past year to prevent further attacks, but its law and policy responses have been undermined by their overbroad and sometimes abusive nature,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author.
“We share Belgium’s and France’s outrage and grief and want those responsible brought to justice. But heavy-handed police raids risk alienating communities whose cooperation can help address the threat.”
In three trips to Belgium, Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 people alleging physical or verbal abuse, and 10 family members or lawyers for people who alleged abuse by the police, soldiers on patrol, or prison authorities. Human Rights Watch also spoke with more than 30 national and local human rights activists, government officials and legislators, Belgium-based security experts, policemen, and journalists. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed 30 new or proposed laws and regulations, as well as dozens of media clips and social media postings.
In a written statement, Belgium’s federal government told Human Rights Watch it is “firmly resolved to protect” human rights in its counterterrorism responses. Belgium was investigating “a number of incidents” of alleged “verbal or physical violence” by police following the attacks, the statement said, but “these are isolated incidents and by no means the result of a deliberate policy.”
The coordinated attacks in Paris on sites including a stadium and a theater killed 130 people. The attacks on the Brussels airport and a metro station killed 32. The extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for both strikes, in which hundreds more were injured.