Dramatic jailbreaks put Belgian justice minister in the hot seat | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 05.08.2009
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Dramatic jailbreaks put Belgian justice minister in the hot seat

Three men on trial for robbery have escaped from a Brussels courtroom, putting more pressure on Justice Minister Stefan de Clerck.

Interpol photo of escaped prisoner Ashraf Sekkaki

Ashraf Sekkaki is one of the escaped imprisoners currently embarrassing the Belgian Justice Ministry

The escapees were at the ornate Palace of Justice courthouse in central Brussels on trial for a robbery in which they allegedly held two women and a child hostage. Just as their handcuffs were removed, their armed accomplices entered the room, threatened the five guards and helped the men flee. The group later fired at police who were chasing them, and they have not been seen since.

Brussels' Palace of Justice

The Palace of Justice is impossible to secure, says Justice Minister de Clerck

Belgian Justice Minister Stefan de Clerck has come under attack for the incident.

De Clerck admitted that the accused men, each with a criminal record, should have been guarded by armed police instead of just security personnel. He said the 19th century Palace of Justice was "a Belgian icon, a monument with magnificent architecture" and numerous entrances that would be impossible to completely secure.

"We need to totally isolate and handle criminal cases in another part of the building," he said.

Multiple escapes plague justice minister

The dramatic caper is the third such jailbreak in 12 days. Two weeks ago a helicopter airlifted three dangerous inmates out from a prison yard in Bruges. Two of those men are still on the run, one of them 26-year-old Ashraf Sekkaki, described by the international police organization Interpol as one of Belgium's most dangerous criminals.

Last week six convicts were able to use a ladder from a construction site inside their prison in northern Belgium to hop the prison wall. While four escapees were immediately stopped, two of them, serving sentences for rape, torture and violent robbery, were able to get away in a car waiting for them.

Oddly enough, it's not a crime to break out of prison in Belgium. It's natural to want freedom, goes the argument. But it is illegal to help someone to escape. For example, the elderly mother of one escaped prisoner could get three years in jail as she had been waiting with the getaway car.

The pressure is now on de Clerck to explain the rash of escapes. He was forced to resign from the same position he holds now in 1998 when a murderer and pedophile was able to escape for a few hours. When the 1998 debacle came up in a television interview with de Clerck after Wednesday's incident, the minister bristled at the host.

"I do my work. I do what I have to do," said de Clerck, who only recently resumed his old post when a new government was formed late last year. "I had six months time to work here and then you make such a laughable comment. I think it's inappropriate."

The most significant effect of the escapes so far is that outdoor time for Belgian prisoners has been limited. Another inmate of the Bruges prison, Freddy Horion, convicted of multiple murders, has now sued the state for not allowing him to exercise in the fresh air.

Editor: Susan Houlton

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