On 16 March 2010, the Brussels Conseil d’Etat issued an urgent injunction stopping the ministry of justice and the prison service from giving effect to their decision of 24 February 2010 denying prison teacher Luk Vervaet access to Belgian prisons for ‘reasons of national security’. The injunction was the latest move in Vervaet’s battle for fair treatment from the Belgian authorities, which has so far resulted in two court rulings in his favour.
Ban on prison teaching unreasoned
Vervaet has taught Dutch to prisoners in Belgian prisons since 2004, when he received authorisation from the ministries and was employed by ADEPPI, an association which organises educational courses for prisoners. In all that time he has never had complaints about his conduct. But on 10 August 2009 he was summarily denied access to St Gilles prison when he tried to enter for a teaching session. Then on 17 August, his employer received a letter from the prisons directorate saying that his access to prisons was denied for reasons of national security. No further reasons were specified and no opportunity to appeal was given.
A campaign was launched to demand justice for Vervaet. Campaigners argued that Vervaet was being penalised for his campaigning work on conditions in Belgian prisons, on which he has published many articles, and his demands for fair treatment for terrorism suspects. The Platform for Free Expression organised a petition which has been signed by over 1000 people, including prominent academics, civil society activists, unionists and others.
At the same time, a legal challenge was issued. Although it was rejected at first instance, the Brussels Appeal Court reversed the lower court’s ruling in a landmark judgment on 27 January 2010, and held that Vervaet’s right to fair treatment could not be overridden by ‘reasons of State’. The judges said that rights which were ‘indispensable for the exercise of his livelihood’ included the right to be told the reasons for the decision to bar him, and the right to a hearing to answer the allegations. The court affirmed that Vervaet’s conduct in performing his teaching duties had been irreproachable, and that the decision of the Ministry of Justice to deny him access to prisons was arbitrary and unreasoned. ‘The rule of law does not stop at the prison gates’, it said.
Second refusal in identical terms
Following the court’s judgment, Vervaet’s employer re-applied for him to resume his prison teaching. By letter of 24 February 2010, the ministry of Justice and the prison service once again refused authorisation for Vervaet to enter a prison. The new decision from the justice ministry and prison service repeated word for word the initial decision: ‘authorisation is refused for reasons of security’. In response, on 8 March Vervaet’s lawyers sought an urgent stay on the decision to refuse access to penal establishments. Their challenge was heard on 11 March in the Conseil d’Etat.
Opposing the injunction, lawyers for the ministry cynically argued that Vervaet’s complaint was inadmissible as the teacher did not have ‘a legal interest’ to protect, since his employer had served notice to terminate his employment contract after the first prison ban. But on 16 March, the court rejected the ministry’s objections and issued an urgent injunction preventing the ministry from implementing the new work ban. It reiterated that the licence to enter prisons could only be removed for good reason, and that neither Vervaet nor the court had been provided with the ministry’s reasons. He should have been given the opportunity to be heard before a decision was taken which prevented him from exercising his profession. The workplace ban created ‘serious and continuing prejudice’, the court said, which justified an urgent injunction.
Meanwhile, the posting of an article written by Vervaet on the website of minister Eveyln Huytenbroek was attacked by senator Alain Destexhe, who demanded its immediate removal. The senator accepted that the content of the piece, on prison education, was uncontentious, but claimed that its author was ‘close to radical Islam’ and ‘supports attacks on civilians’. Destexhe alleged that Vervaet had an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian former professional footballer convicted in 2004 for plotting to attack Kleine Brogel, a NATO airbase. He pointed to Vervaet’s former membership of the Belgian Workers’ Party and his role as Belgian representative of a parliamentary support group for Palestine which, he said, supported all forms of struggle against Israel. Destexhe also pointed to Vervaet’s opposition to Trabelsi’s extradition. Destexhe expressed concern that ‘an ideologue of the calibre of Luk Vervaet should be given the opportunity to get material published on the official website of the ministry for the French community’, and questioned the minister’s links with him. In response, the ministry was quick to dissociate itself from Vervaet, who it said was not known personally but whose article had been taken from a League of Human Rights website. The offending article was immediately taken down from the minister’s website. Vervaet said that he would be consulting his lawyers about an action for defamation against senator Destexhe.