The Platform for Free Expression in Belgium is demanding to know why a language teacher at Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels, who has spoken out against anti-terror laws and the demonisation of Muslims, has been banned from prisons on security grounds.
Four university professors have launched a petition to support 57-year-old Luk Vervaet who, on 10 August, was informed by phone by administrators at the prison of Saint-Gilles that he no longer had access to the prison where he had taught Dutch to prisoners for over five years. No reason was given, except that the decision ‘didn’t come from them’ but from ‘above’. A week later, on 17 August, his employer, the association which organises the courses in prison, received a letter from the General Director of the Belgian Prison Service, Hans Meurisse, saying that Luk Vervaet was forbidden for ‘security reasons’ from access to all Belgian penitentiary institutions.
During Vervaet’s five years of teaching in prisons, there has never been a complaint by the prison authorities about his work, nor has he ever been accused of breaching security. On the contrary, his relations with the prison governor, the prison guards and the student prisoners were all good. Luk has no right to know the basis of the ban, nor can he defend himself, despite the fact that he will be forced to quit his job and lose his livelihood.
A financial appeal has been launched to help Luk Vervaet fund a judicial review of the state’s action, which supporters see as a modern-day version of McCarthyism. It looks as though those who campaign against anti-terror laws and racism could be hounded out of public service, in much the same way as Communists were dismissed in the US, as well as in Germany under the Berufsverbot decree. (There were also similar measures against Communists and left-wing sympathisers in Switzerland until the 1990s). Vervaet’s lawyer, Olivia Venet, has made an application for the release of his administrative file, as in Belgium, the state keeps a file on all workers in any kind of public service. She has received an answer familiar to UK campaigners against anti-terror laws. While the state agreed to release the file, pages 1-3 would have to be removed on national security grounds. Secret evidence is now being used against an individual – this time not a Muslim terror suspect but a Belgian citizen who happens to teach in prisons.
The truth about Belgian prisons
Belgium prisons are so medieval, overcrowded and unhygienic that international bodies such as the Council of Europe Anti-Torture Committee (CPT) have repeatedly denounced conditions, drawing attention to the growing number of suicide-attempts (particularly amongst juveniles). Belgians of a migrant background (mainly Moroccans and Turks) are also heavily over-represented in prisons. Luk Vervaet had attempted to draw attention to racism and the social crisis in prisons through writing occasional columns in national newspapers like La Libre, Le Soir, De Standaard and De Morgen. He has also collaborated with academic research into prison conditions, high suicide rates, proposals to build ‘Titan’ prisons as well as the general demonisation, and criminalisation of young people from migrant backgrounds. He had also been active in several campaigns against the Belgian anti-terror laws, speaking out against the deportation of terror suspects to countries such as Morocco and the US that practise torture and/or the death penalty. His was also one of the few voices in Belgium prepared to argue that the proposed extradition to the United States of ex-footballer Nisar Trabelsi comprised a form of double punishment, as he is already serving a ten-year prison sentence in Belgium for a terrorist offence. What is particularly strange is that in 2009 the Belgian prison authorities granted Vervaet permission to visit Trabelsi in Lantin prison and no objections were raised. During his visits, Luk had been helping Trabelsi write a book and an appeal against his proposed extradition.
Defending human rights – a threat
‘Do his troubling questions and his numerous public declarations about the intolerable situation in Belgian prisons pose a security risk?’ ask the four university professors, whose petition has now been signed by an impressive array of supporters, from Socialist and Green parliamentarians, to artists, film-makers, musicians, journalists to academics working in the field of criminology, anthropology and medicine. Luk Vervaet, they argue, is nothing more than ‘a human rights activist for detained persons … Apparently today, someone who maintains contacts with or defends the fundamental rights of persons suspected of terrorism, becomes a suspect himself.’
Download a copy of the petition and signatories (word doc, 112kb)