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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

Belgian policeman tried over death of Kurdish toddler

The parents settled in Belgium after her death [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 November, 2020

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Mawda was fatally wounded in May 2018 when a policeman opened fire on a van being driven across Belgium by traffickers taking migrants across Europe to Britain.
Belgium's approach to policing undocumented migration will be in the dock on Monday when an officer goes on trial over the shooting death of a two-year-old Kurdish girl.

Mawda was fatally wounded in May 2018 when a policeman opened fire on a van being driven across Belgium by traffickers taking migrants from the continent to Britain.

The officer said he had intended to shoot out a tyre to halt the suspect vehicle during a high speed chase, but his car swerved violently and the bullet went astray.

The tragedy caused a scandal in Belgium and, for rights activists, became a symbol of the dangers posed by the "criminalisation" of irregular migration.

The officer who fired the fatal shot, reportedly a 40-something father-of-two with eight years experience in the police, has not been publicly named.

But he faces an involuntary homicide charge and will appear in court in the city of Mons alongside two Iraqi Kurds, the driver of the van and the alleged people smuggler.

The officer does not deny he drew and fired his gun to halt the fleeing vehicle, but insists he did not know migrants were on board.

He says he felt "wiped out" when he discovered little Mawda had received a fatal head wound, crouched with her parents behind the driver. 

"It's a horror to carry the image of someone responsible for the death of a child," his lawyer Laurent Kennes told AFP.

"He feels that everything has fallen on him, that he has to carry the errors of the state prosecutors, of migration policy." 

Mawda's parents, who left Iraq in 2015 and had intended to head to Britain, settled in Belgium after her death, granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

Celebrity support

They will be represented at the two-day hearing by three lawyers and backed by a citizen activist group that has mobilised international celebrity support. 

Roger Waters, of rock group Pink Floyd, has urged Belgians to attend the hearing and make a fuss: "Do not let them sweep the death of this child under a rug."

In a video message, British filmmaker Ken Loach demanded "what circumstances justify shooting into a van full of people?"

Rights activists in Belgium argue that such awful deaths are made more likely by what they see as the "dehumanisation" of refugees and the "criminalisation" of migration.

Police tactics and the cooperation between French and Belgian services will also be in question.

On the night of May 16 to 17, 2018 when the migrants' van set off from Grande-Synthe in northern France, French investigators had placed a GPS tracker on board.

Read also: Europe's pushback of migrants 'shameful': UN refugee chief

But the Belgian police did not know it was already under surveillance when they tried to intercept the traffickers on a motorway south of Brussels. 

The hearing at the court in Mons, southern Belgium, will last two days, after which the court will retire to consider its verdict.

The police officer could face five years in jail for involuntary homicide. The Kurdish defendants are charged with dangerous driving, aggravated by a death.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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