9th Dec 2023

'Protesters aren't criminals', 10,000 strikers say in Brussels

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Around 10,000 people took to the streets of Brussels on Thursday (5 October) as part of a nationwide strike aimed at preventing a vote on the so-called 'Van Quickenborne bill', which opponents say would restrict the right to protest.

The bill is named after federal justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, who, earlier this year, proposed a reform of the penal code to create a new penalty for rioters.

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Critics say the bill blurs the line between rioters and activists.

The most controversial part of the text would allow judges to impose a ban on protesting for up to three years (five years in the case of repeat offences) on those who cause damage on the fringes of a demonstration or, for example, use violence against police officers.

Under the slogan "protesters are not criminals", a coalition of Belgium's three main trade unions (FGTB, CSC, CGSLB) and several human-rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, took to the streets to demand that the bill be dropped on the grounds that it threatens the fundamental right to protest.

"We see this [bill] as the next step in a worrying trend, not only in Belgium, where activists and trade unionists are increasingly limited in their right to protest," Greenpeace spokesperson Joeri Thijs told EUobserver.

"There is a risk that this new penalty will be diverted from its intended purpose and also serve to hinder peaceful collective action," a spokesperson from the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions of Belgium (CSC) also said.

According to the minister's proposed "anti-casseur" law, the aim is to prevent those who do not take part in a protest (so-called "rioters") from using it as a pretext to deliberately cause violence and damage.

But in practice, say NGOs and trade unions, its scope is too broad and would open a window for targeting non-violent protesters.

In one of its statements, the coalition said: "People involved in social, environmental, etc. causes risk being doubly condemned and banned from taking part in legal demonstrations".

"It's difficult to write this proposal in a way that it cannot be interpreted in a broader sense than it is intended by our minister," Thijs said. "It might be well-intended, but it will not help", they added.

For example, if an activist tied himself to the door of a company in protest, would that be considered damage to property and subject him/her to some kind of penalty (asked the Greenpeace spokesperson)?

The text was due to be approved in July, but following strong opposition from activist groups and a request from the Belgian left-wing PVDA party, the process was delayed and has not yet been voted on.

What has been achieved are a number of amendments (such as applying to protests of more than 100 people) that critics still consider insufficient.

"Such a law will also act as a deterrent to participation in democratic mobilisation," the CSC told EUobserver. "It will inevitably lead to a tightening of police practices to monitor compliance with the ban on demonstrations," it said.

More worryingly, the Greenpeace spokesperson said, it is unknown what state institutions or control mechanisms would oversee such a ban on demonstrations in future.

"Even if you go along with this idea, how would you put it into practice?," Thijs has asked policymakers — with no answer so far.

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