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(Brussels) – 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, “Grounds for Concern: Belgium’s Counterterror Responses to the Paris and Brussels Attacks,” 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.

Read a text description of this video

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
This is Molenbeek, a neighborhood of Brussels. Many perpetrators of the deadly attacks in Paris in  2015 and in Brussels in 2016 came from here. Since those attacks, the Belgium government has enacted a raft of new counterterrorism laws and regulations The police have carried out hundreds of raids.. Several of those targeted told us that the police had abused them or harassed them during these operations.

Fayçal Cheffou, Detained by police:
It’s me who was terrorized by the police. In fact, they call us terrorists, there’s no evidence, nothing. But here, the police are terrorizing me!

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
The vast majority of the people targeted in these police counterterrorism operations are Muslims or people of North African or Turkish heritage.

Haji El Hajjaji, Vice president, Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium (CCIB):
We see very clearly that these populations are being targeted and as soon as the encounter does not go well the police believe they are in the position to use force against these people.  

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
The Belgian authorities told us they are investigating “a number of” allegations of “verbal or physical violence” by the police since the Paris and Brussels attacks. They said that any abusive acts by the police are, quote, “isolated incidents and by no means the result of a deliberate policy.” However some federal police we’ve spoken with, including three who are Muslim, told us they see a pattern of abuse and discrimination against minorities.

“Omar”: Detained by police
Q: While they [the police] were beating you were they asking questions?
No, they were insulting me.
Q: What kind of insults?
Well, “Dirty Arab,” “Terrorist,” “You get what you deserve.”

Zouzou Ben Chikha, Harassed by police
It was raining. That’s the worst part. That’s why it was so humiliating. The ground was wet, and at first I had to take my shoes off. I[LT1]  was in my socks in the rain. // They took my backpack and opened it. They looked inside. They were very rude[LT2] .// And there was one of them [the police] who took the biscuits I had in my pocket, he threw them at me and said, “Take your shit with you.”And that was it. They left me there.

“Omar”, Detained by policeI did not see who hit me because I was handcuffed and against a wall. So they hit me from behind. I had bumps, bruises on my arms. I I yelled to ask why I was arrested, the reason. I have the right to know why I got arrested. No one ever answered.[LT3] 

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:  
Hours later the police accused “Omar” of being a terrorist. But then they released him without charge. Fayçal Cheffou was mistaken as the fugitive attacker in the Brussels airport bombing. The media dubbed this fugitive “the man in the hat.”

Fayçal Cheffou, Detained by police
There was blood all over the cell, my blood. And I did not get medical care. So I stayed there completely naked, all night long. I was in a corner, naked, without a blanket, without a pillow, without a mattress. Just waiting. [LT4] 

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
One of Belgium’s new directives  imposes solitary confinement on prisoners detained on terrorism-related charges, even if they are not yet convicted of a crime. The Belgian authorities have placed about three dozen prisoners in isolation for up to 23 hours a day  as a result of this policy.

Nicolas Cohen, Lawyer for terrorism suspects.
We know that solitary confinement can be inhumane and degrading treatment. It’s very serious. It can border on torture to keep someone in isolation. Here are notes from a psychiatrist after 7-8 months of solitary confinement. The detainee explains talking to walls, talking to the cabinet to ease his aimlessness, his solitude. He says he has no motivation, no desire. His sleep is very disturbed by amongst other things, inspections at night, the noise of the door slot “clack-clack” that opens and closes. The light that comes on. But also the nightmares.

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
The Belgium authorities have a responsibility to ensure public safety and to do what they can to protect people from attacks like those in Paris and Brussels. But security measures should  be carried out in ways that respect human rights and rule of law.

Zouzou Ben Chikha, Harassed by police
I have nothing against police interventions, if there are done in a normal way, in a polite way, as  they would talk to everyone. The problem is that there is a kind of hatred that’s beginning to emerge and that’s not good.

Letta Tayler, Senior Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
After Cheffou was released, the authorities found and arrested a man who reportedly had confessed to being the real man with the hat. Even so, the police have not yet dropped the criminal charges against Cheffou in this case.

Fayçal Cheffou, Detained by police:
Now when you type my name into Google it says “terrorist.” I’m trying to rebuild myself. The police destroyed me. They come in, and in an evening, Boom! They destroy a person’s life. It’s easy.  

“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.

CCTV image from Belgium’s Zaventem Airport of the “man in the hat,” a prime suspect in the airport bombing.  © 2016 Belgian Federal Police

In 26 incidents involving the police that Human Rights Watch investigated, suspects or their lawyers alleged that the police used slurs such as “dirty Arab” or “dirty terrorist,” roughly stopped and frisked them, and in 10 cases, used excessive force such as beating them or slamming them against cars. All but one suspect were Muslim and all but two were of North African descent. Only one was charged with terrorism offenses, in a case of mistaken identity.

The suspects told Human Rights Watch the verbal or physical abuse by the police had traumatized them and in some cases their children, and harmed their reputations. Some said they had lost their jobs as a result. Suspects whose property was damaged in raids described delays and difficulties receiving compensation. All said they had lost confidence in the police because of the treatment.

“We are attacked by the Islamic State, which considers us disbelievers when we have nothing to do with them,” said “Omar,” who accused the police of beating him and calling him “dirty Arab” before they released him without charge. “And we are attacked by the state, which says, ‘You are involved with the Islamic State.’”

One of Belgium’s 2015 counterterrorism measures instructs prison authorities to place all detainees charged or convicted in terrorism-related cases in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day. Some prisoners have remained in isolation for at least 10 months. Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which the prison authorities continued nearly all harsh isolation measures for months after one prisoner tried to commit suicide and the other told a prison psychiatrist that he was “talking to walls.”

At least 35 prisoners are currently in the isolation regime. At least 18 others who had been in isolation have been transferred to a separate regime for prisoners charged or convicted of terrorism known as “D-Rad:ex,” which allows limited interaction among the segregated detainees.

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. 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.
Letta Tayler

Senior Researcher, Terrorism/Counterterrorism

Human Rights Watch recognizes that special measures may be necessary to prevent violent radicalization in prisons, but such measures should be proportionate and subject to effective review. Prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and may amount to torture.

Another law criminalizes the act of leaving Belgium “with terrorist intent” – a vague term that could restrict the travel of people without evidence that they intend to commit or support armed extremist acts. The authorities also can suspend passports and national identity cards for up to six months of people suspected of terrorist aims. Belgian authorities have suspended nearly 250 passports under that measure, which lacks the important protection of prior judicial review.

A sweeping 2016 data retention law compels telecommunications firms to retain the telephone numbers and email addresses their clients use for up to a year, and to provide them to the government on demand in terrorism investigations – also without prior judicial review, despite a potential for invasion of privacy.

Another 2016 measure provides for prison sentences of five to 10 years for indirect incitement of a terrorist act through a disseminated message, regardless of whether it created a risk that the act will be committed. A 2015 law allowing the authorities to revoke Belgian citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism offenses could create perceptions of a tier of “second-class” citizens based on their ethnicity and religion.

Since January 2015, the Belgian authorities have deployed hundreds of soldiers in major cities to support the police – 1,800 since the Paris attacks. While that deployment may well be justified and proportionate, extended military deployment in a civilian policing context is undesirable.

Fayçal Cheffou, mistaken for the “man in the hat.”      © 2016 Human Rights Watch

The federal government says that at least 450 Belgians have joined or tried to join groups like ISIS – the highest number per capita for a Western European country.

In the year since the Paris attacks, Belgian police have carried out several hundred counterterrorism house searches, according to the federal prosecutor’s office, which said it could not provide exact figures. The Belgian authorities also did not provide figures for the number of complaints alleging abusive counterterrorism operations.

Since a deadly attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, the Belgian authorities have convicted 43 people of terrorism offenses and charged another 72, the Justice Ministry told Human Rights Watch. The ministry declined to provide data on charges and convictions since the Paris attacks.

The Belgian authorities should monitor and amend counterterrorism laws and policies to ensure that they do not erode fundamental rights, and enforce zero tolerance for police abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

“Governments have a responsibility to protect people from attack and to hold those responsible to account,” Tayler said. “But disproportionate responses weaken the rule of law, fuel distrust of the authorities in Muslim communities, and divide society when it needs to unite against groups like ISIS.”

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