‘A bolt from the blue’

What was the case about again?

“29 agents of the now closed GEOV service had to answer for harassment and racism before the criminal court in Antwerp. The GEOV team was responsible for the transport of prisoners and the maintenance of order in the court for many years. At the trial, a grim picture emerged of a completely derailed police service, which was called ‘the garbage can of the police’ by various people involved.

“A leaked WhatsApp group played a crucial role in the file. It served to make practical arrangements, but soon became a forum where derogatory remarks were made about colleagues and detainees. For example, photos were posted of a colleague who had an epileptic seizure. Colleagues with a migration background were also tipsy. They were called ‘men of the brown shelf’.”

Why was there no racism, according to the court?

“According to the court, racist statements among colleagues do not fall under the application of Article 23 of the anti-racism law. Racist statements are only punishable in vertical relationships, according to the verdict. This concerned comments among colleagues, which, according to the court, are questionable, but not punishable.

“To be clear: executives were not on trial in this case. Both the defense and the civil parties expressed their displeasure at the trial.

“The court did not think it appropriate to reclassify the facts to Article 20 of the anti-racism law: incitement to hatred and discrimination. That crime requires a special design: it must be incited to do something. According to the court, that was not the case here.”

What punishments were handed down?

“The bullying – the second charge in this case – was, according to the court, proven by sixteen defendants. “The facts are reprehensible and testify to a questionable attitude and a lack of sense of standards, all the more so because the defendants had an exemplary function,” the verdict said.

“When sentencing, the personality of the defendants was taken into account, but also the nature and seriousness of the offences. Anyone who was very active in the Whatsapp group received a stricter punishment, especially if there was also bullying in the workplace.

Five officers were sentenced on Wednesday to six months in prison and a suspended fine. Seven officers received only a suspended fine, and four received the favor of the suspension. The court also acquitted thirteen people completely. They were members of the Whatsapp group, but hardly participated in the conversations.”

How does everyone react after the verdict?

“This is unexpected. Jos Vander Velpen, lawyer of the Human Rights League, whose civil claim was rejected, even called the ruling afterwards ‘a bolt from the blue’. “I find it incomprehensible that the qualification of racism was completely rejected,” he says. “No one from the defense has developed this argument. Moreover, I have never come across it in my career.’

“Abderrahim Lahlali, acting for a victim of Turkish origin, talks about a Solomon’s judgment. “The court wanted to hit and anoint,” says Lahlali. ‘My client was awarded provisional compensation of 10,000 euros. That is a relief, but it cuts that the charge of racism has been dismissed.’”

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