Continuation of proceedings on charges of harassment and contempt against Alexis Deswaef in Brussels

Press release
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On Thursday 30 November, 2023, the Brussels Court of Appeal is due to hear the case that pits lawyer Alexis Deswaef, former LDH President and current Vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), against Belgian Police Commissioner Pierre Vandersmissen. The trial provides evidence of increasingly intense pressure and growing threats directed at human rights defenders and constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Belgium.

Paris, Brussels, 28 November 2023. Harassment and Contempt Act II? On Thursday 30 November, 2023, the Brussels Court of Appeal is scheduled to examine a case that dates back to 2019, when lawyer and former President of the Human Rights League (LDH), Alexis Deswaef, was summoned to appear before the Criminal Court in Brussels. The legal proceedings were brought by Pierre Vandersmissen, Police Commissioner for the Brussels Capital-Ixelles District. He accused Alexis Deswaef, who is currently Vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), of acts of harassment and contempt committed between 2008 and 2016. The acts referred to in his legal action concerned statements made by Alexis Deswaef in the media and on social networks in the context of his role as lawyer and as LDH President. However, Alexis Deswaef’s critical stance towards the police and the Division Commissioner responsible for managing demonstrations in Brussels comes within the scope of freedom of expression, which guarantees independence that is critical for defending human rights and combating police violence. Commissioner Vandersmissen filed an initial complaint against Alexis Deswaef in 2016. Following detailed examination of the complaint and a thorough investigation, in 2019 the Belgian Crown Prosecutor ruled there was no case to answer. The Commissioner took the initiative and cited Alexis Deswaef to appear before the Brussels Criminal Court using a special procedure known as a ‘direct citation’.

Acquittal and appeal by the Brussels prosecution service

On 15 July 2021, the Brussels Criminal Court acquitted Alexis Deswaef. The court declared that it was not competent to rule on statements made in the press and on social media as, in its view, any potential ‘press offences’ were a matter for the Court of Assizes. As for the accusations of contempt, the legal ruling was clear: the statements made came within the scope of freedom of expression. Commissioner Vandersmissen decided to launch an appeal against this judgement. “More surprisingly, the Crown Prosecution Service to the Court of Appeal felt it should follow the Commissioner’s lead by launching its own appeal against Alexis Deswaef’s acquittal, something the Human Rights League and FIDH regret and have difficulty understanding,’ declared Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, Director of LDH.

Suing as a way of intimidating and silencing

The International Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights League condemn these further appeal proceedings. FIDH President Alice Mogwe denounced this action, stating “These proceedings illustrate perfectly the democratic problem posed by ‘gagging proceedings’ – abuses of process aimed at silencing or intimidating and brought against human rights defenders.’ She went on to add that ‘FIDH and LDH will not allow themselves to be intimidated and will not remain silent in the face of the problem of police violence in Belgium. We condemn the disastrous signal sent by the country’s police authorities and prosecution service as well as this judicial harassment of human rights defenders: a democracy worthy of the name deserves better.’

Alexis Deswaef’s defence team comprises lawyers Jean-Pierre Buyle and Christophe Marchand.

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