Belgium: Alexis Deswaef, FIDH Vice President, is acquitted

L’œil du plafond / FIDH

Acquitted across the board! The Brussels Court of Appeal has delivered its verdict in the case pleaded on 30 November 2023. The case involved the former President of the Belgian Ligue des droits humains (LDH) and current Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Alexis Deswaef, versus the police commissioner Pierre Vandersmissen. The Court confirms the decision rendered in the first instance in July 2021. For the LDH and FIDH, this case illustrates the democratic problem created by "gag lawsuits".

So this is the end of a case that lasted nearly 8 years. And it is a huge relief for Alexis Deswaef: "Procedures like these, gag lawsuits, which are instigated to intimidate and silence, are exhausting! But today freedom of expression has won!"

Alexis Deswaef, currently Vice President of FIDH, was accused by Pierre Vandersmissen, then police commissioner for the Brussels Capitale-Ixelles area, of harassment and contempt, between 2008 and 2016. The legal action concerned comments made by Alexis Deswaef about the police in the media and on social networks, in his capacity as a lawyer and President of the Ligue des droits humains (LDH).

The Court of Appeal ruled that these statements fell within the scope of freedom of expression in the context of his role as the President of LDH, as did the Brussels Criminal Court before it in its ruling of 15 July 2021.

The LDH is relieved by this acquittal, but is surprised that it took years of legal proceedings to establish that these charges were unfounded, a fact confirmed by the public prosecutor’s office when it dismissed the commissioner’s initial complaint.

Beyond the case of Alexis Deswaef, this case illustrates the pressure and threats that weigh on human rights defence organisations, including in Belgium, as the Federal Institute for Human Rights pointed out last December: "More than half of human rights organisations say they have been attacked and intimidated at least once between 2020 and 2022. In the majority of cases, this involved legal intimidation, i.e. bringing or threatening to bring unfounded legal action. Nearly a quarter of organisations say they have experienced this." A concerning situation, even if it pales in comparison to the reality faced by human rights defenders in other parts of the world.

On top of Alexis Deswaef, one third of FIDH’s International Bureau is currently prosecuted or has been prosecuted in the last months. Among the Vice Presidents:
 Fatia Maulidyanti was acquitted on 8 January 2024 from a similar accusation in Indonesia;
 Adilur Khan was sentenced in August 2023 in Bangladesh, but freed in October 2023; and
 Valentsin Stepanovic is imprisoned in Belarus.
With regard to the General Secretaries of FIDH:
 Vilma Núñez was stripped of her nationality and placed under house arrest in Managua, Nicaragua;
 Khuram Parvez is detained in India.

For Éléonore Morel, CEO of FIDH, "Governments must put an end to these unfair prosecutions, which show that rights defenders are being targeted by governments all over the world."

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