1 december 2007

Citizens fight new Belgian antidiscrimination laws before the Constitutional Court

PRESS RELEASE : On November 29th, more than 160 citizens filed a joint petition with the Belgian Constitutional Court in order to annul newly modified racism and anti-discrimination legislation.

The 160-odd citizens are men and women of all ages, from all Belgian Regions (to wit, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) and representing a broad cross-section of the Belgian population. Among them, there are unemployed persons as well as managers, independent professionals, employees, civil servants, lawyers, students and retirees. A number of petitioners work in the media or publish regularly. One of their chief concerns was the abrogation of free speech by the new legislation.

The tree laws entered into force after the Belgian Constitutional Court on October 6, 2004 annulled important sections of the anti-discrimination law of 2003. The Belgian government then decided to draft three new laws: one law replacing the old racism law of 1981, a second law replacing the anti-discrimination law and a third law regarding the equal treatment of men and women. The laws entered into force on June 9, 2007, one day before the June 10, 2007 federal elections.

The new legislation contains very vague and very broad provisions. Freedom of speech, but also religious freedom and freedom of peaceful assembly and association are severely restricted.

The provisions on the prohibition of discrimination and the criminal sanctions imposed by the new legislation are so vague that a strict interpretation of the law renders persons criminally liable for reading out certain quotes from the Bible or the Quran, or even for disseminating major works by Darwin or Shakespeare. In addition, anyone cooperating with a ‘group that repeatedly and apparently spreads discrimination and segregation’ may be punished, even if such cooperation would have been extended unwittingly.

In civil matters, the burden of proof is reversed as soon as a presumption of discrimination has been demonstrated by means of statistics or anonymous tests. Citizens who are unable to prove they have not been acting in breach of the new laws, may be condemned to pay lump sum indemnities (up to six months gross salary in case discrimination by employers or potential employers), without it being necessary for alleged victims of discrimination they actually incurred damages.

Further information may be obtained from Mr. Matthias Storme or Mr. Jelle Flo, who represent the petitioners in their capacity as attorneys at law.

The full text of the request to the Constitutional Court can be found in Dutch at http://lvb.net/media/Verzoekschrift-Grondwettelijk-Hof.pdf

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