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Brussels unlikely to extend 'Hooligan Law' to rioters at protests
Despite recent instances of violence stemming from protests held in Brussels against coronavirus-related restrictions, the majority of the city’s parliament has little interest in extending its ‘Hooligan Law’ to ban rioters from future demonstrations.
Police clashed with rioters who damaged buildings, started fires and threw projectiles at law enforcement forces during protests, most recently at the European Demonstration for Democracy on 20 January.
It was the fifth protest in two months in Brussels, and the fifth time that riots broke out at such a protest.
Brussels mayor Philippe Close (PS) proposed taking legislative action against rioters or people who have committed acts of aggression towards police officers, administratively banning them from participating in future protests, citing the example set by the French government.
“Today, when someone trespasses on a field, he has a two-year stadium ban. When done during a football match, he must go to the police station. I want us to do the same thing,” he told Le Soir, pointing out the strict penalties for interfering in sports.
“Those who want to cause trouble will have to know that when they do, they risk heavy penal sanctions and the fact that they will be banned from demonstrations or territories.”
Freedom to demonstrate ‘is paramount’
Currently, mayors can bar people from a specific perimeter for a period of one month, renewable twice. Close wants to strengthen the rule.
“We must change the law,” he said. “The problem is that it does not go far enough. We need to make a law against rioters like we did with the football law.”
But the idea of extending the ‘Hooligan Law’ of sports to civic life met with strong opposition.
“There are a thousand demonstrations a year in Brussels. The vast majority go off without a hitch,” said MP Jamal ikazban (PS). “Certainly compared to other countries, we’re not doing badly. The freedom to demonstrate is paramount.”
Parliamentarian Ahmed Mouhssin agreed, saying that such a law against rioters is contrary to human rights and that it would result in a “dangerous state of law” if mayors had the power to bar people from protesting without a court ruling.
But MR MP and mayor Vincent De Wolf sided with Close: “It’s not because there is a constitutional right to demonstrate that it cannot be tampered with, for example, if there was violence before.”
Close has already entered into discussions with Belgium’s Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open-VLD), and expects the matter to reach federal parliament fairly quickly. “It has to go fast, we have to break the momentum of the rioters,” he said.
One point of agreement is that demonstrations themselves should not be banned, although De Wolf said “part of the population is asking me” to make such a call.
“For residents near Parc du Cinquantenaire (Jubelpark), it has become impossible to go outside during demonstrations these days. That's not reasonable,” he said, pointing out the effect that repeated protests have on the neighbourhoods unwillingly hosting the marches.
Other suggestions from MPs in the debate included looking at alternative forms of protesting or increased involvement from the prime minister.
“In The Hague there is the Malieveld where static demonstrations can take place,” said Bianca Debaets (CD&V). “Let's consider that.”
MP Ahmed Mouhssin proposed a form of ‘Protest Barometer,’ whereby large-scale demonstrations with over 50,000 participants would trigger the involvement of federal law enforcement.
“When mayors maintain order it is done too much from a municipal perspective. That has to change,” said Mathias Vanden Borre (N-VA). “The prime minister can perfectly take the lead in this.”