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More than 1,000 protest unexplained death of Brussels woman in police custody

10:19 06/03/2023

More than 1,000 people gathered in front of the Justice Palace in Brussels following the unexplained death of a woman in police custody.

46-year-old Sourour Abouda died while in police custody on 12 January in what authorities are calling a suicide, but demonstrators have voiced doubt concerning the explanation and are demanding clarity.

Abouda, who had been working in the Brussels social sector for many years, was arrested by a patrol of the Brussels-Capital/Ixelles police zone on 12 January, then transferred to a cell at the National Administrative Centre (RAC), the administrative centre of the federal police in Rue Royale, where she was found dead a short time later.

A few days later, the Brussels prosecutor's office reported that initial findings and the preliminary autopsy report indicated that there was no intervention by a third party.

They say Abouda was possibly drunk and committed suicide by strangulation using a piece of clothing (a jumper) – a theory the family disputes.

“The police are not lucky enough this time to be dealing with someone who had no friends or network,” said the family's lawyer Selma Benkhelifa.

“Sourour had many friends and colleagues, and a close-knit family. They will not give up until justice is done. If necessary, we will go as far as Strasbourg.”

Edgar Szoc, president of the Ligue des Droits Humains (Human Rights League) has added that it is especially incredible that the case has not yet been put into the hands of an investigating judge.

“What is even more remarkable is that the Ligue has come forward as a claimant but is not allowed to see the footage from the surveillance camera in the cell,” Szoc said.

“What does the judiciary want to hide from us? What happened there that we are not allowed to know?

"This case will mark a turning point – the long list of people who died during a contact with the police, that long list of non-Belgian first names, it stops with Sourour. Her death was tragic, but it should be the last.”

Szoc’s remarks indicate that many of the deaths that occur under police surveillance are of people who were migrants, foreigners or otherwise lacking strong social support, meaning their deaths often go un- or under-investigated.

In the case of Abouda, she was the third person of Maghreb origin to die in the very same police centre, according to Abouda’s sister.

“All those names are not just names, they are lives,” Soumaya Abouda said.

“My sister was taken away from me with the utmost violence. Since then, we as a family have had to endure many ordeals, the brutal and incoherent way her death was reported, that her death was falsely presented as a suicide, that her memory was smeared, that we as a family are still not allowed to see all the surveillance camera footage, that the investigation is so slow and we still have not been allowed to read a report of her arrest or autopsy report, the impossibility of having a counter-autopsy performed in Belgium. These are also forms of state violence.”

Abouda points to an issue of “systemic violence, neglect and disdain”.

Sourour’s son also made remarks at the protest, mourning his mother and promising to make her proud.

Photo: Antony Gevaert/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons