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'None of us can remember his case': Terrorist slipped through Brussels' administrative cracks

08:37 24/10/2023

The Brussels public prosecutor's office is taking action in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack in order to ensure the mistakes made regarding Abdesalem Lassoued's case are not repeated.

The office will be strengthened by five magistrates and the Brussels judicial police will hire 50 additional full-time equivalents, prime minister Alexander De Croo and interior minister Annelies Verlinden announced.

According to the prime minister, the R and P Committees, which supervise the intelligence services and police services respectively, have been asked to analyse compliance with procedures and to check whether these procedures are still adequate.

The exchange of information between the police and the justice system with that of the office responsible for keeping track of foreign residents will also be strengthened.

Abdessalem Lassoued, a Tunisian living illegally in Belgium, shot and killed two Swedish football supporters in Brussels last week. It emerged afterwards that Lassoued was known to the Belgian state, which issued a deportation order for the man in 2021.

Not only that, but Tunisia made an extradition request for Lassoued that Belgium never acted on. Belgium's justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne resigned when this came to light.

The existence of the extradition request contradicted what the government had previously claimed, which was that Tunisia was opposed to the return of Lassoued.

De Standaard reports that Lassoued was sentenced to more than 26 years of prison in Tunisia for attempted murder, but escaped with a group of inmates at the height of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011.

“None of our colleagues can remember what happened to this case a year ago [since 12 September 2022],” said acting Brussels public prosecutor, Tim De Wolf.

"There is no trace of any further processing. We can only assume that as part of the usual operating procedure, these issues were probably discussed orally by an administrative employee and the magistrate.

"It is possible that the magistrate asked for the file to be resubmitted at a later date, due to too many urgent cases at that time. It has to be said that there was no further processing at that time."

Lassoued’s file had been placed in a cupboard for cases "in progress", which must be available at all times in case the person is found during a police check.

These files are checked twice a year, but the number of such cases became so high recently that a check in the spring 2023 was not possible, according to the prosecutor’s office.

"[Lassoued’s] file would probably have been taken up again in the next few weeks during the next audit of files in progress,” the prosecutor said.

"As we have no trace of the exact itinerary of the file, it will never be possible to give a complete answer to all the questions. It’s important to stress that the factors cited, such as the high overall workload, which prevented the periodic review of current files, are an attempt to explain the course of events, not to make excuses.

"It is true that the severe understaffing of the Brussels public prosecutor's office played a role, but this is no justification."

De Wolf said the mishandling of the case left "deep scars" on all colleagues involved, adding: “We must do everything we can to prevent this from happening again.”

Photo: Benoit Doppagne/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons