Belgian terror crackdown stokes tensions amid police abuse
Faycal Cheffou, a man mistaken as the top terrorist in the Brussels attacks, says his life has been destroyed and that he cannot find work.
"I'm trying to rebuild myself. The police destroyed me," he told Human Rights Watch in a report presented by the NGO on Friday (11 November).
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A 30-year old freelance reporter and activist, Cheffou was labelled as one of the prime suspects behind the 22 March attack at Brussels Zaventem international airport.
Belgian authorities had initially identified Cheffou from CCTV footage as the man wearing a hat pushing a luggage trolley next to other bombers in a photo taken at the airport.
Belgian authorities had said Cheffou could be seen next to other bombers Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui.
But authorities had picked the wrong guy. But by then it was too late, major media outlets had reported it as fact.
Two days after the attacks, Cheffou was arrested, stripped naked, tossed into a cell, and beaten. Cheffou said he sat in the corner of an empty cell until his transfer to prison.
"There was blood all over the cell, my blood. And I did not get any medical aid," he said.
The person in the photo later turned out to be Mohamed Abrini, arrested on April 8, who had confessed.
"Even so, the police have not yet dropped the criminal charges against Cheffou in this case," Letta Taylor, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Brussels.
Cheffou not alone
Belgian police brutality against Cheffou is not isolated.
In an extensive report, the NGO details accounts of minorities in Belgium subjected to verbal and physical abuse by police in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Some Belgian police, including Muslim officers, told Human Rights Watch that they see a pattern of abuse and discrimination against minorities.
Aside from the assault on civil liberties, the policies and laws enacted by the Belgian government appear to be driving a wedge between minority communities and the state.
Taylor said such actions are used in propaganda by extremist groups like the Islamic State in their broader recruitment drive.
"Responses that short change rule of law and basic rights are actually drivers of terrorism," she said.
The Islamic State capitalises on the crackdowns by reinforcing views that governments are "out to get Muslim people".
The NGO had documented around two-dozen cases where police have either verbally or physically assaulted people. All but one was a Muslim. Most of those cases took places in Brussels where the people behind the attacks had lived.
Another man, named Omar from the Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels, said he felt persecuted by the Islamic State and the Belgian police.
Arrested as a suspect behind the Brussels attacks, Omar had also been brutalised by the police, he says. He was released several hours later without charge. He then lost his job.
"We are attacked by the Islamic State, which considers us disbelievers when we have nothing to with them. And we are attacked by the [Belgian] state, which says, 'You are involved with the Islamic State,'" he told the NGO.
Soldiers in the streets and new laws
Belgium has put some 1,800 foot soldiers on the streets and conducted hundreds of raids on homes in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
But the government refuses to release figures on numbers of people arrested and charged since the Paris attacks. Many of the perpetrators had lived in Belgium.
"I was never able to get that information from the government," said Taylor.
But it has also passed a half-dozen of new laws that pose broader questions of civil liberties and freedoms.
This includes prolonged solitary confinement of people not charged with any crime. One includes a 26-year old man placed in solitary confinement for eight months.
The isolation had left him psychologically scarred and suicidal. He had been rounded up by the police with ten others. Only one has been charged with terrorism and it wasn't him, said his lawyer.
Other new legislation includes the confiscation of passports, the stripping of Belgian citizenship from dual nationals, an extended pre-trial detention for those suspected of terrorism.
"This could create the impression that the Belgian authorities are targeting people because of their background," said Taylor.
A new data retention law passed in May requires telecom operators to store data of their customers for up to twelve months.
Raf Jespers, a Belgian lawyer, told this website earlier this year that the new law targets everyone.
"They collect data from journalists, from lawyers, and from medical practitioners, but also from all innocent people," he said.
Whistleblowers behind things like state corruption are unlikely to contact journalists because of it.
Such bulk collection of data, even from people not suspected of any crime, bears the hallmarks of US-led mass surveillance programmes revealed in 2014.
But it also ignores a European Court of Justice decision that scrapped an EU data retention directive, because it curtailed fundamental rights to privacy.
The Belgium government argues that its new laws are "moderate" given the wider issues of security and threat of further attacks. It has also told the NGO that it is "firmly resolved to protect" human rights in its counter-terrorism responses and that the allegations of police abuse are isolated incidents.