Belgium risks alienating Muslim communities through its “sometimes abusive” response to the Brussels and Paris terror attacks, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Friday.
The rights group said that overly harsh Belgian counter-terrorism laws and “heavy-handed” police operations in the past year were undermining efforts to prevent further attacks, after a Belgian Islamic State terror cell was linked to both the Brussels’ suicide attacks on March 22 and the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks.
“Belgium has worked hard this past year to prevent further attacks, but its law and policy responses have been undermined by their overbroad and sometimes abusive nature,” said Letta Tayler, a senior terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the 56-page report.
“We share Belgium’s and France’s outrage and grief and want those responsible brought to justice. But heavy-handed police raids risk alienating communities whose cooperation can help address the threat.”
The attacks on Brussels’ airport and metro killed 32 people, while 130 people were killed in Paris in a series of suicide bombings and shooting attacks almost exactly one year ago.
The Human Rights watch report “details abusive police responses during counter-terrorism raids and detentions” and criticized such measures as suspension of passports, scrutiny of suspects’ phone and email logs without a judge’s approval, and prolonged isolation of terror suspects, which the group says may amount to torture.
The report was based on investigations into 26 incidents involving police in which suspects or their lawyers alleged that the police used slurs such as “dirty Arab” or “dirty terrorist”, the rights group said.
It highlighted 10 cases in which suspects were allegedly beaten or slammed to the ground.
All but one were Muslim and all but two were of North African origin, it said.
“Disproportionate responses weaken the rule of law, fuel distrust of the authorities in Muslim communities, and divide society when it needs to unite against groups like ISIS,” said Tayler.
In a written statement to the group, the Belgian government said it was “firmly resolved to protect” human rights in its counter-terrorism responses, The government added that it was investigating “a number of incidents” of alleged “verbal or physical violence” by police, but affirmed they were “isolated incidents and by no means the result of a deliberate policy.”
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, is per capita Europe’s biggest supplier of foreign jihadists to Syria, with more than 500 citizens leaving since 2011.
In the year since the Paris attacks, Belgium has carried out hundreds of anti-terror raids on homes.
Belgium’s terror level remains at level three meaning that an attack is considered “possible and probable.” The highest, level four, would mean that the threat is “serious and imminent.”