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First Step Toward Redress for Wrong ‘Man in the Hat’ in Belgium

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

Belgium’s justice system took a long overdue step on January 5 by dismissing terrorism charges against Fayçal Cheffou, a freelance journalist and activist mistaken for a prime suspect in the deadly 2016 Brussels bombings. In addition to being falsely accused, Cheffou was detained for five days and, he alleges, beaten and threatened by federal police. Now, Belgian authorities should ensure that Cheffou can seek compensation for his ordeal—for his sake and as part of a broader reckoning with security missteps in the aftermath of the attacks.

Cheffou, 35, was arrested two days after the March 22, 2016 bombings at Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek metro station, which killed 32 people and injured 340 others. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility. Police mistook Cheffou for a suspect spotted on surveillance cameras at Zaventem Airport who was dubbed by media “the man in the hat.”

When I first met Cheffou in a Brussels café a few months after his arrest, he looked shaken. He told me he came under suspicion because he was taking photos at the Maelbeek metro station after the attack. He was wearing a hat that day—but of a different color and style than that of the airport suspect.

During his detention in Brussels, Cheffou said, the federal police stripped him and beat him bloody, denied him medical care, threatened to hang him naked from a pole and called him “dirty jihadi.” An investigating magistrate charged him with terrorist acts including murder. Upon release, he said, his reputation was ruined, no one would hire him, and his bank froze his account. He said some police were “good people” but that others had harassed or questioned him five times.

A pre-trial judge dismissed all charges against Cheffou on January 5 at the request of a federal prosecutor, who told the court in December  that Cheffou “had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks.” The prosecutor also apologized to Cheffou, calling him “one of the victims” of the Brussels bombings. “No number of apologies can erase the humiliations, rejections and fear you have suffered,” she added.

In a text exchange after his exoneration, Cheffou was upbeat. “I feel like they’ve lifted 100 kilos of weight from me,” he said. “I really hope I can resume a normal life.” But he said he intends to sue for damages.

Under Belgium’s judicial system, criminal charges can only be dismissed during indictment proceedings.  But prosecutors could and should have moved sooner in Cheffou’s case. As I documented in a 2016 report on Belgium’s heavy handed responses to the bombings, it was obvious almost from the start that Cheffou was the wrong man.

Five days after Cheffou’s arrest a judge ordered his release, finding that he bore no resemblance to the airport suspect and that his phone records showed he was not at Zaventem the day of the attack. Nor did Cheffou’s fingerprints match those on a cart that the airport suspect was pushing. Eleven days after Cheffou’s release Belgian prosecutors announced they had arrested the real “man in the hat,”  Mohamed Abrini, now the prime surviving suspect in the bombings.

Cheffou had been on the police radar before the 2016 attacks. He had accused Belgian officials of mistreating Muslim asylum seekers and urged Muslims to “stop the abuses.” One of his close relatives was a fugitive from justice. He also acknowledges he refused orders and insulted the police before they beat him. But none of that justifies the physical and psychological torture the police allegedly inflicted on him, which international law strictly prohibits in all circumstances. Nor does it justify the nearly four-year delay in clearing Cheffou of terrorism charges.

Governments have a duty to hold those responsible for the Brussels attacks to account. But they also have a duty to ensure that their responses uphold the rights to be presumed innocent, to be judged promptly, and to be free from discrimination, torture, and other abuse. My research on Belgium’s responses to the bombings found multiple violations of those obligations including 26 cases of apparent police abuse. Those alleging harm told me they had difficulty obtaining redress. All but one was Muslim.

Belgian authorities should ensure Cheffou has prompt access to all remedies provided under Belgian law for his pain and suffering. They should also ensure appropriate accountability for any mistreatment by the police or prison officials. And they should do the same for all other suspects alleging such abuse. Anything less weakens the rule of law and divides communities that Belgium should be trying to unite against groups like ISIS.

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