Friday

13th Dec 2019

Belgium's EU nominee still embroiled in legal feud

  • Belgium's foreign and defence minister, Didier Reynders, is to be the EU commissioner in charge of justice (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Belgium's EU commissioner nominee, Didier Reynders, faces a fresh legal complaint - this time involving death threats - three days after a low-level prosecutor cleared his name.

Nicolas Ullens, a former officer in Belgium's state security service, the VSSE, filed the new complaint at the Belgian federal prosecutor's office on Monday (30 September).

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It alleges Reynders was guilty of taking bribes and of money-laundering.

It says there was no proper follow-up to a series of classified VSSE reports filed by Ullens during his time in the intelligence service and it encloses 18 of those reports.

It also alleges Ullens faced death threats when he tried to raise the alarm.

The threats were allegedly made in 2015 by a person working for the Comite R, Belgium's intelligence oversight body.

"He [the Comite R staff member] told me that something could happen to me, my wife, or my daughters if I continued to talk about these issues," Ullens told EUobserver.

"I slept with a loaded pistol beside my bed for three months afterward," he said.

And his wife corroborated that he had done so.

The new complaint comes three days after the Brussels prosecutors office shut down an investigation into Ullens' original police testimony, made back in April.

The original complaint enclosed just five VSSE reports and made no mention of death threats.

Under Belgian law, the federal prosecutor handles cases dealing with espionage, terrorism, and international crimes.

The Brussels prosecutor handles cases concerning the capital city district.

Belgium also has "general prosecutors" which oversee the work of the district-level bureaus.

The federal prosecutor's office told EUobserver it was forbidden from working on cases involving sitting ministers such as Reynders, however.

"This means we will have to pass the complaint to the general prosecutor," the spokesman said.

The ongoing feud threatens to cast a shadow over Reynders' European Parliament hearing on Wednesday.

The judicial merry-go-round also threatens to make Belgium's justice system look bad at a time when Reynders is meant to enforce EU rule of law in places such as Hungary and Poland.

For his part, Ullens' solicitor, Alexis Deswaef, hinted that the Brussels prosecutors' office had taken a political decision to shut down the case.

"This sudden dismissal, three days before the hearing of Mr Reynders in the European Parliament, is surprising," Deswaef told press in Brussels on Monday, Belgian daily Le Soir reported.

"We are concerned that the basic investigative duties in this case of corruption and money laundering have not been carried out" by the Brussels prosecutor's office, he added.

The Brussels prosecutor responded by denying it had acted under outside pressure.

Its office works "in complete independence," the Brussels prosecutor said.

It remains to be seen how the Belgian general prosecutor will now handle the case.

But Ullens voiced little faith in the system. "They are all trying to pass the hot potato," he said.

Meanwhile, his divulgence of the classified VSSE reports to the prosecutor puts him at risk of a jail sentence.

But Deswaef, his lawyer, argued that he ought to enjoy the kind of protection offered to anybody who raises the alarm on wrongdoing at personal risk to themselves.

"The complainant [Ullens] must be considered a whistleblower," Deswaef told press.

Pressure mounts to grill Malta's Muscat at EU summit

The Dutch prime minister and figures from the European Parliament are both piling on pressure for leaders at the EU summit to discuss the rule of law in Malta, as the presence of the island-nation's prime minister draws protests.

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