Torture in Antwerp prison: Unions blame overcrowding and understaffing

The incident in which a prisoner in Antwerp was tortured for several days by cellmates is the result of "scandalous working conditions" for staff and prison overcrowding, unions said on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, Belgian media reported that a 41-year-old inmate at the Begijnenstraat prison in Antwerp had been taken to hospital in critical condition after being tortured in his cell by five fellow inmates

The man is said to have suffered severe burns and sexual assault, and his torture was filmed and shared on Snapchat. The victim was tortured for at least three days, possibly four, without staff noticing, unions said.

The Antwerp public prosecutor's office opened an investigation on Wednesday into charges of attempted murder, rape and torture. Three cellmates are believed to be the perpetrators, while two others are said to have been culpably negligent in not helping the man or reporting the torture.

Overcrowded and understaffed

The abuse came to light on Tuesday night when pictures were shared and discovered by staff. "A special check was then carried out in the cell in question," said Mario Heylen of the socialist union ACOD. "The prisoner was hidden under a blanket and told to keep quiet and pretend to be asleep. It was all well organised."

The unions blame prison overcrowding and understaffing for enabling the situation to go unnoticed for so long. They do not believe that a strike by prison staff on Monday played a role, as the torture began before the strike.

"There is no time for more than a superficial check, and the victim was hidden in bed"

The incident took place in a cell that held six people, although it was designed to hold only three, according to the unions. They also claim that staff had little time to check the cells. 

"We are running around like hell just to do our absolute core duties," said Heylen. "There is no time for more than a superficial check, and the victim was hidden in bed. Unfortunately, as long as someone shows signs of life, that is sufficient."

Calls for Justice minister to resign

The unions lay the blame for the incident at the feet of the current and previous federal governments. "For years we have been asking ourselves: do people really have to die before something actually changes?" said ACOD's Robby De Kaey. "This incident is one of many, but also the most heinous consequence of a flawed justice policy."

Following the incident, opposition parties N-VA and Vlaams Belang called for the resignation of Justice minister Paul Van Tigchelt in parliament's justice committee. Unions are not calling for his resignation, but De Kaey said that "responsibility lies with whoever has been responsible for this policy over the past 10 years."


#FlandersNewsService | A prison guard at Antwerp prison in 2017 © BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND

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