On a crisp, sunny morning last week, a man strolled into a Brussels courtroom, pulled out a 7.65-mm pistol and shot both the judge and a court clerk in the head before fleeing. The double killing stunned the country, which prides itself on a cozy, tranquil way of life. Bewildered judges and lawyers described the incident as “disgusting,” “unacceptable” and “an assassination of justice itself.” Government ministers pledged to step up security around the courts, while the Belgian media echoed the outrage. “An attack on a judge is an attack on all of us,” said the daily newspaper De Morgan.
The Brussels police arrested the alleged killer, Abdollazim Fathi Valmi, a 47-year-old homeless man originally from Iran, who promptly confessed that he was taking revenge because the judge, Isabelle Brandon, had him evicted three years ago. And though Belgians may be tempted to dismiss the episode as an isolated case involving a disturbed individual, it has dramatized a run of violent incidents that have Belgians and non-Belgians alike concerned about a collapse of law and order in both Brussels and the country. (See what’s behind America’s falling crime rate.)
Brussels still has one of the lowest homicide rates among European cities. But that is little consolation to a country shaken by shootings, riots and prison breaks. “Brussels is not Durban, Mexico City or even Chicago,” says Dirk Jacobs, a sociology professor at Brussels Free University. “But it is clear that the city – and the country at large – is confronted with unprecedented social problems, and policymakers seem to be spending their energy on other topics.” It is a matter of diplomatic concern because Brussels serves not only as the capital of the nation but as the home of most of the European Union’s institutions. In March, the president of the European Parliament demanded that Belgium provide special security around the E.U. institutions after a series of mugging incidents involving MPs.
Brussels has given a fair impression of lawlessness in recent weeks. Jewelry-store robberies have left three dead, including a mother of three who was driving when the thieves tried to seize her Renault. Just last year, a series of high-profile prison breaks embarrassed the Belgian state, including one spectacular escape that sprung three gangsters from a Brugge prison yard with a hijacked helicopter. A riot in another prison was so violent that it triggered a strike by the country’s entire jail staff. Prisons are woefully antiquated and overcrowded: they creak with about 10,000 inmates, some 2,000 above official capacity. Indeed, earlier this year, a group of Belgian prisoners started serving time across the border in the Netherlands, as the government began renting Dutch jail cells. (See how Belgium is moving toward Europe’s first burqa ban.)
“Public opinion is not used to this,” says Marc Hooghe, a professor of political science at the Catholic University of Leuven. “We think of ourselves as a nice small, friendly place where these kind of things don’t happen.” The violence is blamed partly on the influx of cheap weapons into the country in recent years: Kalashnikovs, unknown in Brussels until recently, are now relatively easy to obtain on the black market and have helped spur a nascent drug trade.
Then there is the poverty gap: although Brussels is one of Europe’s richest cities, there are pockets of deprivation. Particularly vulnerable are the city’s large foreign-born communities, members of which often feel trapped in a downward cycle of poor education and low social mobility. More than 30% of the population is foreign-born, concentrated on the north and west side of the city, in the Molenbeek, Saint-Josse and Schaerbeek communes. Last September, the arrest of a 14-year-old boy sparked a full-scale riot in the rundown district of Molenbeek, with police coming under attack from people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, while cars in the area were torched. The rioters were dominated by Moroccan-origin immigrants who claimed they were being persecuted. Police said many of the attacks were orchestrated by drug dealers intent on creating no-go zones. There have been a number of similar incidents since.
“Many of the tensions are rooted in wealth disparities,” says Marco Martiniello, director of the Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies. “Many feel the legal systems are not there to help them but to oppress them. And the economic downturn has fueled this desperation: sometimes, if you feel you cannot get ahead through hard work, you try other means.”
But the country’s institutions also bear responsibility for the surging violence. Brussels’ courts are the most visible sign of the crumbling criminal-justice system. The imposing neo-Baroque Palace of Justice, completed almost 130 years ago, was the world’s biggest building in the 19th century. The edifice – under scaffolding for the past decade – has no fewer than 44 entrances, and minimal security is in place. Last year, when three handcuffed defendants from an armed robbery and kidnapping case were led into a courtroom, they were intercepted and freed by armed, masked men. (The escapees have since been re-apprehended.)
Jacobs of Brussels Free University blames the degradation of security on the tensions between Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking communities, which have fattened budgets for their respective regions while starving federal institutions. This has left police under-resourced, prisons obsolete and courthouses lacking security, with a rudimentary computerization of the entire legal system. “The linguistic struggle between the two main communities has led more or less to a standstill in federal policymaking,” Jacobs says. As a result, “Belgium has a 19th century criminal-justice system.”