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Several incidents damage public confidence in the Belgian government
Since last week, Belgian media report daily on additional details on scandals that have occurred in this country in 2018. In February, a Slovakian man – Jozef Chovanec - has died in a police cell after a very despicable treatment by the Belgian police. Later that year, in December, a student (with African roots) was - accidentally? [1) – tortured to death during a student baptism. He wanted to be a member of an elite student club, consisting of sons of judges, prominent politicians, entrepreneurs and professors. Both issues are only now coming to light. Unfortunately, this is not because of the transparency of the government. No, it comes to the light because relatives and friends involved with the victims revealed the facts. In Belgium, many people are shocked, bewildered, and discover these facts with authentic disgust. In the first place because of the terrible facts. What public has learned is also seriously damaging our trust in the institutions such as the judiciary, police and government.
Undoubtedly what happened to Jozef Chovanec is known in Slovakia at this point. From a Belgian point of view, the ball really starts rolling from 19 August 2020 onwards. The images of the police intervention are only then revealed in the national media. It was more or less for the first time the media reported about the death of Mr. Chovanec that happened two years ago. The former Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon (part of the radical right-winged N-VA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie); currently Prime Minister of the Flemish government), and serveral other top officials of the federal police dismiss the blame for they "were unaware of the seriousness of the facts". The investigating judge takes no action. Exemplary of this situation is that in March 2019, Mr. Chovanec's widow learns through the Slovak Ambassador that the investigating judge wants to conclude the investigation. According to her lawyer, as a shocking surprise, it turned out that many important elements were not investigated. The culture of silence (omerta) at the police and judicial authorities is now being charged again.
The ‘amnesia’ of minister Jambon might be related here to another terrible incident later that year, as the investigative reporters from the Belgian newssite Apache suggest: On May 17, 2018, Kurdish-Iraqi toddler Mawda Shawri died by a police bullet. She was out in a van with her parents and other refugees from Iraq. Police chased the van driven by a people smuggler. During that intervention, a shot was fired that killed little two-years-old Mawda. When the autopsy revealed that Mawda had indeed been killed with a police bullet, minister Jambon and his deputy were held politically responsible – but also then, they didn’t resign.  N-VA party president Bart De Wever said at the time: "No matter how tragic the death of a child is, you must dare to portray the responsibility of the parents here. Talking about those people simply as victims does not seem correct to me."
The facts repeat themselves (yet the tragedies remain incomparable)
The incident with Mr. Chovanec is reminiscent of Jonathan Jacob's death. Mr. Jacob died in a police cell in January 2010 after a violent intervention by police officers. A psychiatrist, the director of a psychiatric hospital, and seven members of Antwerp’s police intervention squad have been found guilty. But the investigation seemed to take off only after the camera images were broadcasted in a television documentary series Koppen - and three years after the facts. Amnesty International and the UN Committee Against Torture expressed serious concerns in 2013 about how that death was being investigated and made recommendations to address the impunity for unlawful police actions, and to strengthen the surveillance of the police and places of detention. “The very limited progress on those recommendations also indicates political failure,” said Eva Berghmans of Amnesty International Belgium. “Belgium continues to fail to develop the structures intended to prevent this type of drama as much as possible”.
Different case, and different circumstances, but facts also well hidden from the general public and media, is exactly what has happened to 20-year-old student Sanda Dia (20). Sitting half-naked in a self-dug well full of ice-cold water for six hours, biting the head of a live eel, drinking fish oil, ... These are only a few from the list of the humiliations that eighteen members of student club “Reuzegom” inflicted on him shortly before his death. The Public Prosecutor now wants to prosecute the board members for “the accidental killing” of this engineering student, not a murder. Immediately after the student baptism took fatally wrong turns, all students involved promptly erased the evidence: videos and photos that were taken at the time, and after consultation with their parents. This summer, the relatives of Sanda created an Instagram account to put the case in the public spotlight again. The hashtag #JusticeForSanda has been circulating around.
Moreover, Sanda prior to his murder, was previously the victim of racism at the student club Reuzegom. And his case was not an isolated one, several other racist incidents have been reported. Ku Klux Klan outfits at parties, overt racism, humiliation and abuse of power as “an initiation trademark,” and the praise of the "führer".
The surveillance footage of Mr. Chovanec’s death shows that, while several agents sat on top of the handcuffed man, one of them actually gave a Hitler salute. One must logically wonder how many cases went, and still go on under the (media) radar.
This week there were also media reports that leaked from a private Facebook group, where police officers in Belgium use racist language and glorify violence. The group, called “Thin Blue Line Belgium,” is available to both active, and retired police officers. There is clear evidence that young people with a migration background are being repeatedly dehumanisedinside of this group, including descriptions such as “viper brood,” “rats” or “vermin.”
After the death of George Floyd in the United States, the problem of systemic racism found its way to the public agenda in Belgium too. In theory, Belgium is an anti-racist state. Our country has an anti-discrimination law and an anti-racism law.
There is an institution, Committee P, Permanent Oversight Committee on the Police Services, that acts as a watchdog for malpractice by the police, for example in the case of ethnic profiling and police violence. But: all professional organizations within this field emphasize that the current fight against racism is based on the incidental and individual responsibilities.
That is where the real problem lies, given that almost all available studies show that racism is ingrained in our society at a structural level.
It is hard to expect progress in this area from the political leaders at the moment. To begin with, we have had no elected government in Belgium since the elections of May 2019. It illustrates current lack of political leadership in Belgium.
Furthermore, the radical right-wing N-VA describes diversity mainly as a problematic challenge that puts our society under pressure. On the other hand, they are not willing to recognise that there is structural racism inside the society and their very institutions, (including this largest political party in Belgium). A concrete approach to racism is therefore positioned as a false dilema. That it is purely a matter of individuals, and their free will to bear the responsibility and seize the opportunities - instead of wallowing in a victim role. Quite a lot of people in Belgium share this opinion. Many people focus on the Otherness of Muslims in particular. This dominant focus on identity forms a smokescreen that prevents us from talking about fundamental rights that are systematically being violated. Groups of people are excluded from good education, decent housing, and personal development in their free time.
Lack of facts in public discourse creates overall mistrust in the very institutions that need to serve all people. It furthermore leaves space to alternative facts, and disinformation to take over. This is, aside of each described human tragedy, a great risk for the balance of our entire society.
Authorities thus must act now on a national and international level, and bring justice to these cases, as well, as create public discourse that helps to understand how systemic racism is unacceptable.
Dietmar Bosmans, Belgium.
Political scientist, philosopher, worried citizen.
September 2, 2020.
 The involved club members are under investigation for involuntary manslaughter.