"It was vital to speak out"
On Friday, 12 February, the initial verdict will be pronounced in the trial into little Mawda’s death. A police officer stands accused of firing the fatal shot and faces a one-year suspended sentence. Two other defendants were also put on trial - the presumed van driver and presumed co-driver - and face up to ten and seven years in prison. While media attention has focused on the bereaved family and the shooter, the other defendants have passed almost entirely unnoticed.
Now, the podcast The defendant no one heard is focusing on the fate of one of them, Mr Del. The podcast was created by Kristin Rogghe, together with Marie-Aurore d'Awans and Pauline Beugnies, after having attended both trials. The podcast creators are questioning the injustices in the judicial system and the dehumanisation of migrants at every stage. What if the balance of power in society at large was simply being reflected in the justice system? Their observations will be transformed into a stage play at KVS in the autumn, but in the meantime, these three young women examine the sociological aspect of the events, which they believe are symptoms of structural failings. We met with two of these critical witnesses.
Why did you create a podcast about the Mawda affair?
KR It was vital to speak out. Few people had direct access to the trial, but we were able to attend. When we compared our experience of it with what was reported in the media, we felt that there was a story not being told. A dehumanisation of migrants throughout the whole process.
In the podcast, you point particularly to inequalities in the treatment of the different people involved.
K.R. Inequalities in treatment were apparent at all levels. In the sentences sought for the different defendants, of course (one year suspended for the police officer who fired the shot, ten years in prison for the presumed driver and seven years in prison for the presumed smuggler Editor’s Note) but also already evident in ‘details’ such as the arrangement of the court room. The police officer was not detained prior to trial and appeared in court facing the bench. The presumed smugglers were remanded in custody and were seated opposite the parents in court. From the beginning, there were translation problems when it became clear that Mawda’s family and the two accused could not understand the interpreter, who stated that he had only around 70 to 80% grasp of the Sorani language! Because the court had initially agreed to this interpreter, it was as though the justice system decided that it was fine for them to receive only 70-80% of their right to be judged in a language that they understood.
MAD'A They were even asked if they would agree to only a summary of the arguments being translated. All of these little things, one after the other, show that not everyone is placed on the same footing. No, you don’t just summarize the arguments, especially when people risk 10 and 7 years in prison. What’s even crazier is that the presumed driver and co-driver appeared before two hearings at the same time, in Mons and in Liège.
"The balance of power in society doesn’t stop at the court-room door."
Is this kind of dehumanisation the reason why a police officer can shoot at a van with people inside?
KR It’s hard to conclude that, because it isn’t just one police officer: it’s a whole system of dehumanisation and a migration policy that encourages it. So, every time there is an incident or event involving police officers, they try to blame it on exceptions, on ‘rotten apples’.
MAD’A The system always turns things on their head. In Mawda’s case, they said that it was the driver’s fault that she died. Or that the parents and family didn’t have to be there. Personally, I think that if Mawda’s parents had had another means of getting to England, they would have taken it. We wanted the podcast to change the way we tell the story. This time we’re listening to the presumed driver. Whether guilty or not, everyone has the right to state their case and be heard.
Why has his voice not been heard?
KR It’s no coincidence that they were brought in at the very end. The trial was scheduled to take two days. At the end of those two days, we hadn’t heard from either of the presumed smugglers, nor their defence lawyers. We’d heard at great length from the police officer and his lawyer, but not from the other two defendants. So, they added a third day a few weeks later. The first two days were covered widely in the media, but the last day much less so. During the trial, the police officer’s humanity was emphasized through family stories, and that’s fine, but the others were constantly demonized. Ironically, the third day of the trial was 10 December, International Human Rights Day. However, in the court that day, it seemed that there were humans and sub-humans. I was angry and we decided that Mr Del’s voice should be heard. It’s much easier to condemn someone to ten years in prison when you don’t see them as a human being, with emotions, dreams, a story and people who love them.
Is this a case of class justice in your opinion?
KR Unfortunately, there is a clear double standard.
MAD’A And an undocumented Iraqi is at the absolute bottom of the barrel.
KR The balance of power in society doesn’t stop at the court-room door. Very often, people without power don’t even get to have a hearing. How often have cases been dismissed before trial when a police officer is implicated in the death of a racialized person? Without external pressure, Mawda’s case would never even have been brought to trial.
“The coroner ruled out death by gunshot without even going to the crime scene.”
How is the judicial treatment of this case symptomatic?
MAD’A During the whole trial, the parents’ story was constantly questioned. The trial started with a debate about the exact place where Mawda was sitting in the van at the time of the shooting. But is that so important? How did she die? By gunshot, full stop. A whole morning was taken up with questioning the parents’ statement.
KR It was very violent. The witness examination of the coroner and the ballistics expert gave the impression of using all possible means to make the unacceptable acceptable. If you state the facts, that a two-year-old child died because of a gunshot fired by a police officer, most people would say that was unacceptable. Whereas, for hours, experts were giving details on the trajectory of the ‘projectile’ when it penetrated her head. It all sounded scientific, but it’s a case of normalising the unacceptable.
MAD’A And additionally, there were multiple versions, even in the statements: Police officers reportedly said that the child had fallen or even that migrants had used her head to break a window. The coroner ruled out death by gunshot without even going to the crime scene. This tendency towards a cover-up comes from a system, not an individual.
What do you think about the request for a 10-year sentence for the presumed driver?
MAD’A The Public Prosecution Service requested ten years because it was a repeat offence, as he had already been sentenced in France when he was barely 18.
KR People often mix up two terms: people smuggling and people trafficking. People smuggling is helping people to cross borders in exchange for a transaction. The issue which isn’t discussed is that there is hardly any legal way to request asylum, even for people who have the right to do so. They can’t get here legally to do so.
MAD’A We know perfectly well that people find themselves driving vehicles or piloting boats because they want to cross the border themselves. They do it so that they can pay less by risking greater responsibility if they get caught.
KR There’s not even any evidence that Mr Del was driving. The traces of his DNA that were found could be explained in other ways. There are no witness statements naming him and many contradictory statements. The police officer himself identified someone else. It’s strange that for the undisputed crime, the gunshot, everyone is looking for exculpatory evidence. However, for the aspect where there is no concrete evidence, whether or not Mr Del was driving, there is no presumption of innocence.
MAD’A In court, Mr Del tried to explain himself succinctly. “I am not a people smuggler. I am a hairdresser and I have dreams for my life.”
There have been other cases where people have died through police contact. Are there links?
KR There’s a real problem with police impunity. To restore public confidence in the police, they need to acknowledge the structural problems and end the culture of silence and of tolerating the intolerable, such as racism.
MAD’A You may remember that at the time of the death of Semira Adamu, the Belgian Minister for Home Affairs resigned and there was a wave of regularisations of migrants. On this occasion, Mawda’s parents had to wait more than nine months for temporary renewable papers, although their daughter is buried here. When Semira died, everyone was outraged that people were being treated like dirt, but in fact it’s gone from bad to worse. That’s why there should be a parliamentary inquiry.