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Remand and overcrowding plague Belgium. Saint Gilles “human rights violations”

Brussels – Qatargate , the investigation by the Belgian judiciary into alleged cases of corruption involving MEPs and European Parliament officials, has ended up rekindling the spotlight on a chronic problem of Philip’s reign: overcrowding in prisons and the massive use of detention prevention , and in general respect for human rights towards detainees.

The issue of prison overcrowding was first raised by the lawyers of Silvia Panzeri and Maria Colleoni, daughter and wife of the former European deputy considered at the center of the “clique”, Pier Antonio Panzeri , on whom two extradition requests were pending in Belgium . Even the lawyers of Andrea Cozzolino , MEP of the Democratic Party, highlighted the precarious conditions of Belgian prisons to prevent the delivery of their client. The defense of the former vice president of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili , instead denounced the inhuman conditions to which the woman is subjected. And Marc Tarabella ‘s lawyer has asked for the recusal of the investigating judge, Michel Claise, due to the violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence: for all the suspects, the Belgian magistrate ordered pre-trial detention from the outset, except for granting the electronic bracelet to Francesco Giorgi, Kaili’s partner and Andrea Cozzolino’s assistant , after three months of detention.

A long-standing overcrowding of prisons
According to a study on European prisons requested by the EU Parliamentary Commission for Civil Liberties (Libe), there are 7 countries in the Union where there is a “serious overcrowding” of prisons, including Italy, Greece and Belgium . In 2021, the occupancy rate of Belgium’s 37 prisons was 158 percent , i.e. 158 prisoners for every 100 places. Over the last few years, the Belgian state has been invited on several occasions to remedy the phenomenon: in 2019, a sentence by the French-speaking court in Brussels condemned the state as responsible for prison overcrowding, in particular regarding the structures of Saint Gilles and Forest, and asked for the population to be brought back to the maximum capacity of the institutions within six months. If the prison of Forest was definitively closed last November, replaced by the new prison of Haren, that of Saint Gilles still housed around 900 people, compared to a capacity of 502 inmates.

It then fell to the Council of Europe , in particular the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Cpt), to highlight the persistent problems in Belgian prisons . On 29 November 2022 , following a series of visits to the prisons of Antwerp, Lantin, Saint Gilles and Ypres, the Cpt noted “the long-standing overcrowding and lack of personnel” in all the establishments and asked “again the authorities to reduce the prison population and tackle overcrowding, in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe”.

Preventive detention in Belgium

To address the issue of overcrowding, and the ensuing violations of the rights of detainees, one of the ways indicated on several occasions by the European institutions is to work on the laws that regulate recourse to preventive detention . Not only a Belgian question, but a European one. According to the latest report from the Council of Europe, there are over 98,000 people in European prisons subject to pre-trial detention. One prisoner out of five, in the Community territory, is presumed innocent , who has not yet received a definitive sentence. But if the European average is 22 percent of prisoners, in Belgium it reaches 38.4 percent: 3,983 people out of a total of 10,379. The study by the Council of Europe shows how the rate of occupation of prison facilities in the country would decrease by over 60 percentage points , going from 158 to 97 percent, if unconvicted people were no longer detained in prison.

In general, EU states allow preventive detention only for defendants who risk certain minimum sentences: at least one year in Belgium, two in Spain, three in France and three to five in Portugal. In order for imprisonment to be used, there must also be a risk of destruction of evidence or of influencing witnesses or victims, a risk of re-offending or a risk of the defendant trying to escape before trial. Then there is the question of the maximum time allowed for pre-trial detention . The European Convention on Human Rightsruled that a person in pre-trial detention has the right “to be tried within a reasonable time or released”. Last December, the European Commission drew up a recommendation in which it asks the Member States to use pre-trial detention only as a last resort and to accompany it with periodic reviews.

Brussels has also set minimum standards for cell size : “Member states should allocate to each inmate a minimum surface area of ​​at least 6 m2 in single-occupancy cells and 4 m2 in multi-occupant cells”. This is not quite the situation that the members of the Supervisory Commission of the Saint Gilles prison found on December 20 , in charge of the independent control of the structure, the treatment reserved for prisoners and respect for their rights. In a letter to the mayor of the municipality, the supervisory commission found that “the conditions of prisoners and staff are worse than ever and are deteriorating day by day“. Due to overcrowding, “cells that were burnt out, where the plumbing doesn’t work” and even some “without windows” are being used. Furthermore, due to the lack of personnel, the letter denounces the cancellation of “the most elementary activities for prisoners”. In isolation cells, prisoners “no longer receive hot water for washing” and are forced to use “defective sanitary ware which gives off a fetid smell”. According to the Supervisory Commission, the conditions of detention in the Saint Gilles prison would constitute “inhuman and degrading treatment “, in violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. “ The Belgian state is guilty of violations of the fundamental human rights of detainees”, concludes the letter.

Source: eunews