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NEWS

Recent case in Belgium raises concerns about international judicial cooperation

admin - December 6, 2019 - mutual legal assistance

 

A recent raid of a Kazakhstani political refugee’s home in Brussels has sparked debate in Belgium – are there enough safeguards to protect its legal system from political exploitation?

In early October, Belgian authorities agreed to help Kazakhstani authorities in their investigation into Bota Jardemalie, a Kazakhstani political refugee and lawyer. Her home in Brussels was subsequently raided and searched by Belgian police, and her documents seized. Alarmingly, this took place in the presence of two individuals, who are presumed to be Kazakhstani government agents.

In a recent press release, Belgium’s League of Human Rights expressed their concern about Belgium’s decision to allow Kazakhstani agents to take part directly in investigations on Belgian territory. It is perhaps surprising that such authorisation was given, in light of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record, and its history of political repression.

Cooperation between police forces, prosecutors, and judges through ‘mutual legal assistance’ is crucial for tackling cross-border crime. But because many countries abuse their own criminal justice systems to persecute political dissidents and human rights defendants, it is equally crucial for countries like Belgium to have proper safeguards to prevent human rights abuses.

We would have expected Belgium to be extremely cautious about cooperating with Kazakhstan in this case, given that Jardemelie was granted refugee status in Belgium due to the persecution she faced in Kazakhstan. When the Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, was questioned about the case by members of parliament, he confirmed that her refugee status was known at the time by the relevant authorities.

“It is clear that any request for assistance from the country concerned and relating to a person who is a refugee in Belgium must be treated with the utmost care and subject to a thorough examination,” reads the statement from the League of Human Rights.

There is no bilateral treaty between Belgium and Kazakhstan that regulates how the two countries should cooperate on criminal justice matters. In the absence of such a treaty, Belgium relies on domestic laws on mutual legal assistance. These laws include a provision to refuse a cooperation request if it concerns a political offence, so it is questionable why on this occasion, Belgium not only agreed to cooperate with the Kazakhstani authorities, but also allowed them to be physically present at Jardemalie’s home.

Whatever the legal merits of the Belgian authorities’ actions, however, Jardemalie has no way of challenging them, nor is she able to determine what documents have been seized, by whom, and for what purpose. There is also no legal recourse to stop the transfer of documents to the Kazakh authorities.

Her lawyer and our Belgian LEAP member Christophe Marchand said that, “It is incredible that in a country like Belgium, the capital of Europe, there is no effective judicial protection for recognized political opponents. They face judicial persecution by their country of origin through judicial cooperation in criminal matters and there is no organized legal remedy to fight it.”

Kazakhstan, as well as many countries around the world, have been known to harass and intimidate their critics living in exile overseas through mechanisms designed to facilitate cross border criminal justice cooperation. These include INTERPOL’s ‘wanted person’ alerts, which have been misused as tools of oppression due to lack of effective safeguards. As a long-time target of the Kazakhstani regime, Jardemalie could be the latest victim of this pattern of abuse, despite being granted political refugee status in Belgium in 2013.

It is worrying that Belgium appears to have been swept into this pattern of abuse and turned its back on an individual to whom it guaranteed protection. Given the human rights implications of cross-border cooperation, states must apply all necessary human rights safeguards when assessing and executing mutual legal assistance requests and refuse requests from countries that use it to pursue its political opponents and refugees.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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