The challenge is undermined

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Numerous recent events have raised questions about the freedom to express one’s opposition to the political system in Belgium. 

The repression of social movements is obviously not new, and no study has been conducted in depth to show an increase. On the other hand, we can affirm with certainty that the legislative and police arsenal of liberticide is constantly being reinforced. The repressive laws are deepened, under various names: particular methods of research, communal administrative sanctions, anti-terrorism law and, very recently, law on ‘incitement’ to terrorism,… The means are also more important: video surveillance, tracing of cell phones, emails, helicopters flying over the demonstrations,… We see a clear increase in repression on the ‘pre-action’. Maybe because we were not there before, and history does not tell us, maybe also because the technological and legal means allow it more. 

Let’s review some of the most significant events in the (pre)history of the Observatoire des violences policières (ObsPol). Most of these events are today in the hands of a justice system which, according to the history of social movements, we should not expect.


ARRESTS BEFORE THE DEMONSTRATIONS

The repression of the activists was fully revealed during the ‘No border camp’(1)in September 2010 in Brussels. This period can serve as a starting point for our analysis since it favored the birth of ObsPol. During the preparation of the camp, the police presence was already felt and, between intimidation and dissuasion, some were approached to unpack their plans, others had their bags searched… Law enforcement clearly demonstrated a climate of widespread suspicion and surveillance. This was a disturbing signal to the outside world, immediately casting opprobrium on the participants.

One of the first events of the camp was a gathering in memory of Semira Adamu in Steenokkerzeel. As soon as the train left Brussels, the police invaded the cars and checked the train en masse. They asked the ‘other’ passengers to move to different cars and grouped those who ‘looked’ like they were going to the closed center 127bis. Once the sorting was done, they announced that the demonstration had not been authorized, and that it could only take place if people were good enough to be identified, searched and photographed. Some were forced, sometimes manu militari, to let themselves be filmed from 40–50 cm away, before being allowed to join the group. In front of the center there was a massive police presence, with infantry, squads and platoons; means that were disproportionate, to say the least.

The event set the tone for continued repression and the continuation of the ten days of reflection on border issues was extremely restricted. There were many preventive arrests of people leaving the shelter for no apparent reason. A key day was the Euro-Demonstration of the trade unions against the austerity plans. From 9am, in the vicinity of the Tour&Taxis site, the metro stations and boulevards were invaded by police forces, in civilian clothes or in uniform, accompanied by their dogs and horses. A multitude of arrests were made with a similar modus operandi: two or three walkers were brutally arrested, without any explanation or reason, only on the basis of their external appearance. Body search, bag search, verification of identity documents, handcuffing behind the back… for a departure in vehicles starting all sirens screaming. During 8 to 10 hours of confinement, many were treated in an extremely brutal manner, with taunts and insults. The result: more than 450 arrests, so-called preventive.

Dozens of testimonies and complaints reached the legal team(2) and the League of Human Rights. All the horror of the physical and moral brutalities perpetrated by the police forces appeared in a dismaying way: permanent insults, people on the ground beaten, young girls undressed and threatened with rape, manhunts in the city, passers-by arrested because they are worried about what they see, theft of the images of the filmed facts, in the cell threatened with sodomy with the truncheons by the commissioner, etc…(3). All the abuses that are currently taking place but remain unknown were revealed in a concentrated manner(4). This amount of suffering needed to find a place to express itself, and gradually the idea took shape of creating an organization where victims of violence could submit their stories, which would be valorized by a publication and would feed an image of reality.

The question remains: were these mass preventive arrests legal? These arrests are not always abusive ‑in terms of the law- but, in principle, the mere fact of gathering is not a sufficient reason. If the person is disturbing the public peace or is about to commit an offence, the police can arrest the person. The content of the provisions leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but in any case one can only stop if it is the only and last possible way. Simply going to a demonstration, even an unauthorized one, is not enough because, in addition to the importance of freedom of expression and demonstration, the conditions for detaining someone are strictly regulated and the right to move around is protected by Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Of the 450 arrests, few were legal, one complaint was filed in court regarding 5 people arrested preventively, due to the lack of ‘absolute necessity’. The trial is expected in October 2014.

NO RESPECT OF THE LEGAL PROVISIONS

At the end of 2010, the social climate calmed down somewhat, but the repressive memory remained sensitive. The ‘Indignant movement’ appeared in June 2011, events on which we will not dwell. Despite a strong police presence, preventive arrests were few, probably because the political ideas were even fewer, perhaps also because some members of the movement called for denunciation in case of protest action.

Little by little, testimonies are starting to arrive (see next article), and the ObsPol website is preparing for a launch in March 2013. A new high point was October 22. The « Collective of Afghans », mobilized against deportation to their war-torn country, calls for a rally at the Arts-Loi crossroads. Very quickly, the police arrest the participants, with dogs and tear gas in hand. Result: 158 Afghans placed at the disposal of the Office des Étrangers, 10 people administratively arrested. The handcuffs are tight, the violence is pervasive and a bleeding man is lying on the sidewalk. Once again, everyone was systematically arrested, based on the sole fact of demonstrating(5).

In addition, the use of ‘collars’ (plastic handcuffs) is also strictly regulated. Police officers may use force, but it must be necessary and proportionate, for example, in the case of resistance or violence during an arrest, or in the case of danger of escape, but we can oppose an arrest in a passive or defensive manner. For example, the Ghent court ruled that a drunk man with walking difficulties brandishing a cane at three police officers did not constitute a sufficient danger to be handcuffed(6). According to the court, the obviously absurd confrontation between three police officers and a naked man with a cane should have been resolved with patience and persuasion. Unquestionably, the police disregard the legal conditions and slide from the legitimate use of force, according to the law, to the abusive use of force, systematically handcuffing and tightening the ‘collars’ when they consider that they are dealing with ‘dirty leftists’ (we quote).

UNIDENTIFIABLE OFFICIALS

o conclude, let us cite the events of December 19, 2013 in Brussels. At the call of the ‘D19-20’ (a platform of associations and trade unions), people gathered to block major intersections, against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP, TAFTA,…). At the end of the demonstration, at the Cinquanenaire Park, the police are present in mass: some over-equipped and identifiable, others in plain clothes. Suddenly, they decide to attack the demonstrators who are dispersing peacefully. Police officers, in plain clothes and hoods, remove their armbands, become unidentifiable, and block the entrances to the park to prevent people from leaving the site. Inevitably, the tone rises and arrests are made in violence and bludgeoning. The plastic handcuffs are very tight, and some people will have marks from them, accompanied by severe pain. Once again the police justify themselves by stigmatizing the arrested people as being from the ‘anarchist movement’, a justification taken up by the majority of the mainstream media. The term ‘anarchist’ is thus intentionally and systematically used as a synonym for disorder and/or danger to justify arrests of demonstrators.

Again, the legality of these arrests is questioned. The absolute necessity prescribed by the legal device is absent. The means used are disproportionate and, without having committed any act, people are arrested en masse and handcuffed. In most cases, participants complied with police orders, which is easy to imagine given the mass presence of the police and their unsettling attire. Moreover, detention is only justified in the legislation if there are no other means to restore ‘public order’. For the police officer, it is clear that the suggestion ‘you leave or we arrest you’ does not come to mind. The arrests are trivialized, they have become the game of the demonstration. These targeted repressions can be seen as a refusal to allow any form of opposition to show. Freedom of expression is also limited — even suppressed — by the authorities when they refuse to allow journalists or passers-by to film the events. The police frequently take the liberty of destroying images taken by journalists or bystanders observing police violence, which is perfectly illegal.

This series of events is certainly not exhaustive, and we note a trivialization, over time, of this means of channeling any expression contrary to the current suggested (and even imposed), by those who hold power. A trivialization in the head of the police authorities, who think they can act freely in this sense and do not ask themselves any more questions, but also and this seems to us more worrying, in the head of the militants. They have been bullied so much that there is a shift towards acceptance, either consciously or unconsciously ‘since we are demonstrating, we have to accept the game’. How far we have come already, in the direction of consent in the face of oppression .…Catherine and Geneviève (Obspol)

TESTIMONIES FROM THE ‘OBSPOL.BE’ WEBSITE

« (…) my friend being French, the controllers decide to contact the police. The police arrived and decided to take my friend to the police station. At that moment I asked the policewoman: ‘Madam, please, which police station are you taking him to?’ She answered me very nervously and shouting ‘You back off and don’t talk!’ I tried to explain that my friend was from France, that he didn’t know where I lived, and that he didn’t have a phone so I could reach him… I didn’t even have time to say yes when the policeman jumped on me, took me by the throat and strangled me against the glass wall, first with his hands and then with his baton, then he started to shout: ‘Sit down, sit down’, but with the way he was holding me, it was impossible to sit. The 2 security guards of the bus company got involved and pushed me, dragged me to the bench. Once I was seated, I didn’t raise my head anymore, the policemen went back to my friend and one of them hit me with a baton and opened my eyebrow. I was bleeding so much that they decided to handcuff me and take me to the hospital. I thought that was the end of my nightmare but no! They lifted me up by the handcuffs until I fell on my knees and then asked me to get up. They did this 4 times in a row, I couldn’t take it anymore. They laughed and laughed at me saying that I was just a « thief, like all Arabs ». I shouted at the hospital, I asked for help but nothing, nobody reacted. The medical secretary saw how they treated me, but she didn’t react. Then they took me to the cell.

« When I arrived at the police station, I was taken to a room where, after a few punches in the ribs and stomach to stop me asking questions, I was asked to empty my pockets, which I did. With the contents of my pockets on the floor, I was accused of being a « dog » and forced to pick up my belongings by beating me with reinforced gloves. Finally afraid for my teeth, I decided to accept. Then I was asked to undress. Since I refused, I was violently tackled to the ground, dragged by the hair. Forced to undress, I found myself in my underwear. I was then asked to take it off, I refused again, I was beaten again. Being afraid for my private parts again, I decided to obey again. When I was completely naked, I was asked to turn around and do flexion-extension against the wall. After doing the first one, I was yelled at to count out loud, I refused, but after a punch to the ribs, I agreed to count out loud. I was allowed to put my underwear back on, they handcuffed me, (…) »

Notes et références
  1. Les ‘camps no Border’ sont des rassemblements récurrents, organisés à différents points de l’union européenne afin de contester la répression et l’enfermement des migrants au niveau européen. www.noborder.org et www.noborderbxl.eu.org.
  2. Le terme ‘legal team’ désigne les groupes de personnes, accompagnés de juristes, attachés à suivre les évolutions de la répression lors des manifestations. Le besoin s’est justement fait sentir durant les mouvements sociaux de la fin des années 1990, par l’augmentation des abus policiers.
  3. Nous renvoyons ici aux faits relatés par la parlementaire Zoé Genot. Question à la ministre de l’Intérieur Annemie Turtelboom, chambre des représentants-commission de l’Intérieur, compte rendu intégral CRIV 53-COM 001, Réunion du 5 octobre 2010.
  4. Rappelons le procès, en décembre 2013, de 13 policiers qui avaient frappé, humilié et volé des personnes vivant à la rue et des sans-papiers: « frappées avec des câbles électriques dénudés, certaines avaient été offertes en cadeau à un anniversaire, comme souffres-douleurs, une fillette tsigane de douze ans avait été tondue et humiliée », etc… Les faits furent dénoncés en interne, quatre ans après avoir été commis, par des policiers ayant brisé le ‘code du silence’. Quelle quantité de faits semblables ne sont jamais arrivés à la connaissance du public?, citation extraite du JT de RTL, 9 décembre 2013.
  5. Voir l’article ‘La police manque de considération’, Gérald Hanotiaux, Kairos n°11, janvier-février 2014, pp 4–5.
  6. Arrêt du 11 décembre 2012, en chambre correctionnelle de Gand. une présentation et analyse est disponible en néerlandais sur le site d’un avocat à l’adresse suivante: http://elfri.be/rechtspraak/handboeien-mogen-enkel-aangewend-worden-bij-…
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