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Reports of excessive force, indiscriminate arrests surface after protest
The unauthorised protest which took place on the Mont des Arts in Brussels on Sunday, attended by a crowed of around 100 demonstrators who had gathered to denounce recent acts of alleged police brutality, somehow resulted in the arrest of approximately 245 people, reports claim.
While many of the protestors, who had assembled to decry the lack of punishment for police officers involved in cases of violence and discrimination, had disbanded around an hour after coming together at 14.00, some moved to the square in front of the Central Station to continue the demonstration. Police then moved in with dogs and used pepper spray to break up the group.
It was first claimed that a few dozen protestors had been detained but a report published by Bruzz alleges that around 245 people were arrested, with several detainees complaining of disproportionate action by the police at the scene.
"I didn't take part in the demonstration, but I'd never seen that many police officers," a 20-year-old man told reporters. He was quoted as saying he had been walking with some friends when he passed by Central Station on Sunday. "We went to see what was going on. Not up close - and just because it was intriguing. I hadn't seen so many police even at the Black Lives Matter rally."
Before the start of the protest, dozens of police vans and six water cannons were lined up at the Royal Park, near the Mont des Arts. The police tolerated the unauthorised gathering for 45 minutes before issuing an order for the protestors to disband. By 15.00 most had left the Mont des Arts area.
One 23-year-old female student, who had attended the demonstration and had left the Mont des Arts when police issued the order to disband, was later arrested in the vicinity of the Central Station.
"I didn't provoke anyone," she told reporters. "I didn't feel like being picked up, so I left quietly when they asked. But then I heard people shouting that they were victims of police brutality and wanted to see what happened. We were then arrested. A friend asked why and that we had a right to know. A police officer then told us we had no rights any more.”
The 20-year-old man who, along with his friends, had been in the proximity of the demonstration out of curiosity was also arrested.
"One of the officers shouted something at us from a long distance, but we didn't hear properly," he said. "He shouted again, ‘Step back.’ So, we pulled out, but they still came to pick us up. They searched us, we had to hand over our mobile phones, wallets and keys. One friend asked the cops why we were arrested. An officer just said that we no longer had any rights."
The man and his four female friends were taken in a police van to the barracks in Etterbeek. A fifth friend escaped being arrested because she was carrying her dog. At the barracks, the man had to go to the men's cell on his own. "I was in shock,” he said. “Suddenly I was in a cell with about 30 men, all hyper-agitated. Some were really angry. I can understand that feeling, but for me it was terrifying." He was not allowed out until eight hours later, at midnight.
Other passers-by were also arrested after the demonstration. This is evident from testimonies on social media and from stories reported by several news outlets. Some of those arrested had come to protest. Others said they were just waiting for their bus. Activist Yassine Boubout, among others, was pepper-sprayed in the face and had to go to jail.
The police issued a statement after being approached to give details of the arrests made at the demonstration. "We do not communicate about individual arrests," the Brussels-Capital-Ixelles police statement read.
According to a police spokesperson, all arrests were made after the demonstration. "It was about people who didn't want to leave the place and stayed there,” the spokesperson said. “There were also people who shouted, ‘We will destroy everything’.”
Reports suggest that the police action escalated when groups of demonstrators tried to leave the Mont des Arts area via the Grand Place. Eyewitnesses say riot police were deployed near the Rue du Marché aux Herbes with police vans blocking routes around the Grand Place and officers with dogs moving into groups to disperse them. It was at this point that most people involved say the chaos erupted.
The 23-year-old female student and her friend were among those trying to leave the area when the riot police were deployed. Their route away from the Mont des Arts was blocked and so they turned towards the Carrefour de l'Europe in front of the Central Station where some had deliberately gathered, and others had been herded.
“The cops told me, ‘Go over there,’ but every time there were other cops saying, ‘No, go over there.’ Everyone was nervous. I got trapped," she said. In the end, she was arrested at the bus stops at Central Station. She had to wait two hours in the cold before being taken to the police cell in Etterbeek. She was not released until 21.45.
According to estimates, around 245 people were locked up in various police station in the area on Sunday afternoon. These include arrests in the Brussels-Capital Ixelles area and the Brussels-North police zone. Of those, according to the reports, 91 were minors. Witnesses who were detained told reporters that they saw a 12-year-old girl in the women's cell. There are also testimonies of police brutality in the cells, in which officers allegedly beat some detainees "without direct cause".
"I saw a lot of arrests of young kids," said a 21-year-old man who was arrested at the Rue du Marché aux Herbes. He had planned to go to the demonstration but was late and went to leave when he saw the riot police gathering. "I did express my opinion when I saw those arrests happen,” he admitted. “I clapped a little ironically and said they were doing a good job of taking in minors. And just for standing there, I was arrested too."
He said his girlfriend was arrested as well because she asked why the police picked him up. "In my cell were four people who were arrested while they were just ordering fries," he added. He ended up in the cell in Etterbeek with 35 men. "Other people were just waiting for their bus or train."
Brussels mayor Philippe Close reacted to these reports by asking for explanations and accountability from the police. Close had initially allowed the demonstration but was then pressured into withdrawing his permission by interior minister Annelies Verlinden.