HRWF (09.08.2012 ) – On November 26, 2011, the Belgian Parliament voted a Law adding articles to the Penal Code criminalizing « Abuse of Weakness ». Obviously, every citizen agrees that a person in a situation of weakness because of his age, physical or mental handicap or a permanent or temporary precarious situation needs protection. However this new Law went a step further by being purposely vague and omitting clear definitions of applicable circumstances. As was pointed out during the Parliamentary debates, this opens the way to prosecute even salesmanship, charisma, convincing management, religious practices and more.
The lead author of the Law, Deputy André Frédéric, left no doubt that the real intention was to focus on religious and ideological minorities, going after what he called « dangerous sects and sectarian practices »
It went through an elaborate delivery: in the last decade, previous proposals with the same or similar content, were either severely questioned by the State Council or stalled before they could be voted on because of elections.
This time, the proponents, realizing that their latest attempt might equally fail, reverted to plan B: they « buried » their controversial articles in an amended proposal that included more than 30 provisions that no right-minded person would object to. Subsequently, they invoked a vague reference to a government agreement to force getting the necessary votes. Even then, the proposal went back and forth twice between the House and the Senate, and avoided another referral to the State Council because of a blatantly inexact statement by Senator Mahoux, who declared that « similar » proposals had already been reviewed by the State Council, without mentioning that the Council actually objected to the wording used in the past. He called for an interruption of the Senate Justice Commission meeting to confer with Senators of the majority. They decided that the majority would vote it, alluding to provisions in the Government Declaration on Public Security (in fact there was no such specific provision)
The new Law was published in the « »Official Gazette » on January 23, 2012.
To underscore their particular interest, the lead author, together with another Deputy and an ex journalist who was present during the hearings about the Law (he presented himself as representing the Civil Society), immediately created an association to act as civil party to represent alleged victims of « sectarian organizations » targeted by the Law.
They seemed more than anxious to start their « witch hunt ».
In the meantime, reactions from University scholars, lawyers and representatives of ideological and religious associations began to surface.
An appeal to the Constitutional Court to void the Law seems therefore more and more likely.
It would not be surprising, since the Law managed to potentially violate at least 4 articles of the Belgian Constitution:
Art. 11: Enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized for Belgians must be provided without discrimination. To this end, laws and federate laws guarantee among others the rights and freedoms of ideological and philosophical minorities.
Art. 12: The freedom of the individual is guaranteed. No one can be prosecuted except in the cases provided for by the law, and in the form prescribed by the law.
Art. 19: Freedom of worship, its public practice and freedom to demonstrate one’s opinions on all matters are guaranteed.
Art. 22: Everyone has the right to the respect of his private and family life
The Law equally disrespects noble principles anchored in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) such as the right to liberty, right to a fair trial, right to respect for private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, prohibition of discrimination.
In other words, both the Constitution and ECHR rightfully protect citizens’ rights of freedom in ideological matters, freedom of expression, as well as the exercise of their beliefs and their privacy. Any potential restrictions would need laws with prescriptions in clear, understandable and precise terms. The consequences of non-obeisance should be predictable.
The new Law fails on all those issues.