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3,000 take part in wake for murdered woman in Antwerp
Some 3,000 people took part in a silent wake yesterday evening in Antwerp to commemorate Julie Van Espen, who was murdered last weekend riding her bike in the city. She was 23 years old.
Van Espen left from her home in Schilde at about 18.00 on Saturday on her bike, headed to friends in Antwerp. She never arrived, and a search was carried out. Her body was found in the Albert canal on Monday next to a cycle path that ran under a bridge. The wake was held on the site.
Police soon identified a suspect from nearby security cameras. He was arrested and confessed to the crime.
Steve Bakelmans, 39, had been in prison from 2004 to 2008 for rape. In 2017, he was again found guilty of rape but appealed the sentence. Two years later, his appeal was still processing, a fact that has led to much anger and disbelief among citizens, legal experts and women’s rights advocates, some of whom are calling for a reform of the justice system.
People are also questioning why Bakelmans was not held during his appeal, an option open to judges but not used in this case. Bakelmans was freed until his appeal was ready to be heard.
“When are we going to start taking sexual violence seriously?” asked psychologist and sexologist Goedele Liekens on Radio 1. She pointed to the Netherlands as an example. “They go to the root of the problem. You can intervene much earlier than a rape. A rapist has a past that begins with ‘less serious’ offenses. In the Netherlands, that’s when they intervene.”
Belgium needs to do the same, she said. “We have got to, in god’s name, intervene faster and earlier. Tackle these violent elements then. We have to encourage more reporting of these crimes and see that they are taken seriously. And of course the punishment must be severe, but not only consist of punishment. We need reintegration, therapy, a change of mindset.”
The Antwerp court blamed cut-backs for the delay in processing appeals of serious crimes, to which justice minister Koen Geens answered that more of the justice budget had gone to staff over the last few years.
“The decision to release him on his own recognizance was taken by a judge,” said Geens. “As a minister I have to respect that. A different judge might have taken a different decision, that’s how the law works.”
Some are now calling for a change to the law that would require those found guilty of a serious crime who are awaiting an appeal to be kept in custody.
A march to protest sexual violence is planned for Sunday in Antwerp.
Photo: Luc Claessen/BELGA