Statewatch News online: Five police officers on trial over the death of Semira Adamu in 1998

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Belgium: Four Belgian police officers guilty over the death of Semira Adamu

On 12 December 2003 a Brussels court found four former Belgian police officers guilty of assault, battery and negligence in the case of Semira Adamu who died during a forced deportation in 1998.

Five police officers appeared before the court, one was acquitted; three were given one year suspended sentences, and the fourth, the unit’s chief, got a 14-month suspended sentence. The presiding magistrate said in his ruling that regulations had not been followed, excessive force had been used, and that police chiefs and that the government shared responsibility for Semira’s death. The court also ordered the Belgian state to pay undisclosed damages to her family. Semira's death in 1998 led to the resignation of the then Interior Minister Louis Tobback.

Semira Adamu, whose ankles were shackled, was on a plane going to Lagos in Nigeria. She died from suffocation when her face was pushed into a cushion and held there. She became unconscious and died later in hospital.When asked in court why the use of so much force was necessary one of the officers told the court that it was necessary: "to avoid disturbing other passengers".

Semira was 20 years old at the time of her death and resisted deportation because she was returning to a forced marriage to a 65 year old man who already had four wives.

See: Amnesty International  Expatica report

Statewatch reported in 1998 on her death:

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold":
The causes and consequences of the death of Semira Adamu

Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 5 (September-October 1998)

The death of Semira Adamu, a 20 year old Nigerian woman killed whilst being deported from Belgium, has made headline news throughout Europe, especially following the resignation of Home Affairs minister Louis Tobback. Inquiries have since revealed that Semira's death occurred as a consequence of practices which have become part of a daily routine of deportations from Belgium.

The countdown to Semira's death began over two years ago with the introduction in 1996 of a new asylum bill (see Statewatch, vol 6, no. 2, 3, 4 & 5). This new legislation (known as Vande Lanotte's law after then home office minister Johan Vande Lanotte) increased the responsibility of transport companies, making them liable for fines plus the costs of any sans-papiers brought into Belgium by them. It also allowed the indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers as well as the implementation of both the Schengen and Dublin conventions regarding safe third

The implementation of the new law led to the creation of several new asylum centres including the infamous "127bis" in Steenokkerzeel close to Zaventem airport. Although the Belgian government has since described the regime at Steenokkerzeel as "relaxed", campaigners at the time described the asylum centre as a "concentration camp" surrounded by two fences topped by razor wire. At that time one of the distinctive features of Steenokkerzeel was the arbitrary use of isolation cells to hold "unruly" asylum seekers for an indefinite period.

The new law also saw the introduction of quotas, (9,000 in 1996, 12,000 in 1997, 15,000 in 1998). In order to meet these quotas new practices were introduced to speed up deportations, such as the removal of the children of deportees straight from school. In October 1997, after resistance from deportees had led to the cancellation of deportations, a new Rijkswacht (Gendarmerie) directive in the form of a 14 page manual was issued to officers responsible for deportations allowing cushions to be put over the faces of deportees both to gag them and to prevent them from biting anyone.

This coincided roughly with the time that Semira Adamu entered the picture. Semira came from a relatively wealthy family from Lagos in southern Nigeria. She originally left Nigeria to escape an arranged marriage to a much older, polygamous man. Her eventual destination was Berlin, however the plane she was on made a stop-over at Zaventem, where Semira fell foul of the "safe third country" rule. She was then taken to Transit centre 127bis, where she was questioned for the first time on March 26 and refused entry. She appealed against this decision and after a second interview also went against her a decision was made to forcibly deport her. Semira was terrified by the thought of returning to Nigeria, where she faced not only marrying somebody against her will but also physical punishment by her family.

The authorities made five increasingly violent attempts to deport her. After the fifth attempt, which was cancelled after the pilot refused to fly with her, her lawyer stated that she had been warned that all possible methods would be used to deport her and that any violence used against her "would be her own fault". Her lawyer added that Semira feared for her life.

By this time Semira had already become a cause celebre and campaigners, increasingly concerned about Belgium's asylum laws, had taken up her case. At the same time more and more reports were published about the increasing violence involved with forced deportations. A pilot working for the national airline company, Sabena, appeared anonymously on a television programme describing violent scenes he had witnessed during forced deportations. Semira's case had already led to demonstrations outside Steenokkerzeel.

Finally, on September 20, two days before her death, Semira appeared on television as part of a documentary about rejected asylum seekers. In it she gave a graphic description of the fourth attempt to deport her:

"I was woken at 6.30 a.m. and given twenty minutes to prepare for departure... When we arrived at the airport my hands and feet were bound and I was thrown into an isolation cell for over three hours. At 11.15 they forced me onto the plane. I began to scream and cry as I was surrounded by six gendarmes and two men from Sabena. The airline men pushed me around and one held a cushion to my face. He almost suffocated me. These men were supposed to accompany me all the way to Lome. Passengers intervened at this point, saying that they would get off the plane if the men did not let me go."

The events leading up to Semira's death were captured on video. This time she was surrounded by 11 gendarmes as well as the standard two airline company men. As ordinary passengers were boarding the plane she was forced to bend down, put her face on a cushion on the knee of one of the gendarmes and was held in that position for about twenty minutes. At the end she lost consciousness. She was immediately taken to St Luc Hospital in Brussels. Doctors were unable to revive her and she died at 9.32pm.

The announcement of Semira's death led to spontaneous demonstrations across Belgium. In Steenokkerzeel inmates went on immediate hunger strike while hundreds of people surrounded the transit camp. This led to Tobback closing the centre down and freeing the remaining inmates. It was effectively his last decision as deputy prime minister and home office minister. The day after Semira died Tobback appeared at a press conference;
according to reporters he appeared shaken by the incident. He defended the gendarmes involved, stating that they had handled everything "by the book". He took full responsibility for Semira's death, and stated even then that "... if it were up to me then I would have already resigned. This has been the worst day of my political life". Yet he appeared to try to focus blame on campaigners who according to him "encouraged deportees to resist". By Friday he decided that he would have to go, following two revelations. First, it emerged that one of the gendarmes responsible for Semira's deportation had been suspended for a month in January 1997 following allegations in the Het Volk newspaper that he had mistreated a deportee. Second, the video of the incident was shown to a shocked nation, revealing that the gendarmes had been cracking jokes whilst holding the cushion over Semira's face.

Luc Tempels, chief of security at Zaventem, also resigned his position. He too claimed full responsibility for Semira's death: "As commander of the security detachment at the national airport I believe that I am officially responsible for the death of Semira Adamu" he admitted. Two gendarmes have since been charged with involuntary manslaughter and the Gendarmerie have refused to carry out any more deportations. Thus the demand of the Belgian greens (Ecolo-Agalev) for a six month moratorium on deportations appears to have been met. Ecolo-Agalev stated that:

"this was no unfortunate mistake of a gendarme, but a sad escalation of an inhuman asylum policy which for which successive Home Affairs ministers were responsible"

The Belgian greens were not alone in their condemnation of the events surrounding Semira's death. The Christian trade union conference (ACW) called a day's strike in Zaventem airport, pointing that they had been warning for months that forced deportations "could have fatal consequences". Other campaigners demanded an immediate enquiry into the state of Belgium's asylum laws.

However, according to Linda Delva of the Limburg Platform for Refugees, the case reveals a deeper crisis within Belgian, and by implication European asylum law. As Linda points out in an interview with Elektronisch Nieuws, the rejection of Semira's asylum claim took place in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. This again raises the question of the extent to which the Convention is capable or incapable of recognising gender-specific or gender-related forms of persecution and human rights abuse: "... the Geneva Convention doesn't give any specific rights to women, or for that matter to refugees from civil wars." Linda argues that "there are many people who simply cannot return to their country of origin, even if they don't meet the criteria laid down by the Geneva Convention".

... This is not the first time a deportee has died whilst being expelled from "Fortress Europe". A Zairian man died in 1986, also as a result of a cushion being placed over his head, whilst being deported from Belgium. There was no enquiry at the time. Nor was there an enquiry into the death of a Tamil asylum seeker following his forcible deportation from France in 1991. This case has only recently been investigated, (see report in this issue). In the UK Joy Gardner's death, resulting from her face being covered with masking tape whilst police attempted to deport her is another notorious example. Three police officers were later acquitted of her manslaughter, whilst police procedures were reformed to exclude the use of mouth restraints (see Statewatch Vol 3 no 4, Vol 4 no 3 and Vol 6 no 1).

Although the death of Semira Adamu has led to profound shock in a country almost inured to political scandal, the Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene has committed himself to maintaining the repressive immigration and asylum legislation introduced by successive governments:

"We have no intention of reviewing our options for granting political asylum....those who are legally entitled to remain in the country must be integrated within Belgian society, those who have no legal right to be in the country cannot stay. After all we also have obligations vis a vis other European countries who face the same problems."

Since 1993 UNITED has monitored the results of the policies building "Fortress Europe". Their latest list includes 1,114 deaths which can be put down to border militarisations, asylum laws, detention policies, deportations and carrier sanctions, to the implementation of the Schengen Agreement and to the consequences of the Dublin Convention. UNITED commented:

"Her death is not a singular incident. The deaths of refugees are the symptoms of policies that no longer see the humanity of those fleeing their homeland, but prefer to see them as numbers, or worse, as a natural disaster, a "flood"."

Sources: Association pour le droit des etrangers, Brussels; Solidair, 30.9.98; Elektronisch Nieuws; Het Volk, 26.9.98; De Morgen, 24.9.98; Le Soir, 23-6.9.98; Magasile, 7.10.98; Liberation, 24.9.98; NRC Handelsblad Weekeditie, 29.9.98.

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