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Belgian Parliament interrogates Minister of Justice over the case of Bota Jardemalie

On 6 November 2019, Members of the Federal Parliament of Belgium’s asked questions to the Minister of Justice Koen Geens, during a Justice Committee hearing. Five parliamentarians, Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo), Georges Dallemagne (cdH), Khalil Aouasti (PS), Sophie Rohonyi (DéFI) and John Crombez (sp.a) asked questions regarding the controversial judicial cooperation between Belgium and Kazakhstan in conducting a raid of the apartment of Kazakh political refugee and human rights lawyer, Botagoz Jardemalie. ODF has been monitoring the case since the beginning and is now supporting lawmakers investigating it.

All parliamentarians raised their serious concerns regarding the nature of such judicial cooperation and questioned whether Belgium should have accepted it or not. “Mrs Jardemalie has been the subject of a request for judicial cooperation from Kazakhstan – a country from which the political refugee status, granted to her by Belgium in 2013, is supposed to protect her” started Georges Gilkinet.

“It seems that our judicial police services cooperated with the Kazakh police at the expense of this lawyer who had been granted political asylum precisely because of the serious threats that the Kazakh dictatorship poses to her security” added Georges Dallemagne.

“Belgium has therefore acted upon a request for legal assistance from a country recognized by an independent Belgian public authority, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA), as persecuting the person who was finally searched” stressed Khalil Aouasti. “What is worse (…) is that the search was conducted in the presence of two non-identified Kazakh policemen, who were able to access documents of the refugee, who is also a lawyer of the New York Bar. All of this took place in the absence of the President of the Brussels Bar, who was informed of the search after it happened, while on the contrary it is expected, although this lady is not a member of the Brussels Bar, that he be warned and have the possibility to be present or delegate a member of the Council of the Order to ensure compliance with the principles governing the legal profession” he added, pointing out another violation in the procedure of the search.

Referring to the materials seized during the search, Sophie Rohonyi insisted upon the risks “that if these documents, hard disks and computers are not returned, they will likely be used by the Kazakh courts against the lawyer but also against the political opponents that this lawyer represents”. “Was the confidential nature of the documents sufficiently represented by having the search carried out in this way? Was the President of the Bar asked for the presence of a member of the order so that the confidential nature of the documents could be protected? If not, why didn’t that happen?” asked John Crombez.

Moreover, concerns were raised by both Rohonyi and Dallemagne regarding the seizure of passwords and the hacking of accounts that followed: “Since the submission of my question, I learned that some passwords found during this search, including for mailboxes, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, have been used in the meantime to access Mrs Jardemalie’s accounts. It is particularly serious to realize that items that have been seized may have been used by third parties to search the correspondence for information that they did not normally have access to legally” underlined Dallemagne.

The questions were answered by the Minister, but were very limited due to the ongoing investigation, as he explained. His primary justification for the cooperation was properly conducting the investigation. Nevertheless, many elements in the reply provided remain problematic. In particular:

1)    The Minister replied to the complaints about the absence of the President of the Bar by saying that the decision to notify him or not is taken by the examining magistrate (juge d‘instruction). He added that two lawyers of Mrs Jardemalie reached the apartment while the search was occurring and they made no objections. This statement does not correspond to reality: the search continued for two hours without the presence of a lawyer. When, around 8:30 am, Jardemalie’s lawyers, Ronit Knaller and Antoine Matz, reached the apartment, the police prevented them from entering it, claiming without basis that they would interfere with the search, and refused to provide them with a valid search warrant.

2)    The Minister justified the need for cooperation on this case in order to not send a message of impunity. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Khalil Aouasti during the debate, the accusation brought against Mrs Jardemalie were already in place in 2013, when she was given the status of political refugee by Belgium. The Geneva convention on the status of refugee provides exception for the granting of refuge under article 1F, which include as a criterion for exclusion the commission of a serious crime in a country different from the country of refuge prior to being admitted for refuge. The alleged crime quoted by the Minister was committed prior to the arrival of the person in 2013 on the territory. The Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS), in granting refugee status to Mrs Jardemalie, examined this exclusion criterion. Despite this, the CGRA, an independent authority, granted her the refugee status in 2013.

3)    The Minister explained the presence of two Kazakh officers (one judicial police and one from the anti-corruption bureau, according to the Minister) during the search as normal practice. However, it must be underlined that this led to potential immediate violation of sensitive data which may have been photographed and sent to Kazakhstan. Moreover, within hours of the search, at least three of Jardemalie’s e-mail accounts and her iCloud account were accessed by unauthorized persons, very likely the Kazakh authorities, who obtained access to her accounts in the course of the search. The e-mail accounts contained confidential and privileged information.

4)    At no point during the search did the Belgian police provide a search warrant, despite being asked for one by Jardemalie’s family and the lawyers. The Minister did not address this issue.

5)    The Minister claimed it was normal to conduct a search of a political refugee’s home together with representatives of the state the refugee is being protected from. He in fact stated that this has happened many times, and several of these specifically with Kazakhstan. Considering, that in this case Bota Jardemalie’s brother is a political prisoner being tortured in Kazakhstan (as confirmed by the UN, EP, OSCE and US Senate, among others), would it be normal – according to the Minister – e.g. for the prosecutor responsible for these atrocities, to be present at the search and have unrestricted access to his sister’s documents, online accounts and belongings? Would this also be the case for refugees from any other authoritarian regime, or just from Kazakhstan? Doesn’t that go against the institution of political asylum itself?

6)    The Minister avoided commenting on the country that sent the request of mutual cooperation. As reminded by Dallemagne, the accusations of corruption were made by a “regime, infamous for corruption cases involving Belgian and French personalities. Everyone here remembers the lamentable Kazakhgate affair”. Despite this, the Minister only acknowledged that, certainly, greater attention must be paid when mutual assistance requests are received from “certain countries”, but did not seem to be concerned about the possibility that this may indeed affect the reliability of the nature of the request itself. It is difficult to believe that the Minister would be unaware of Kazakhstan being considered an authoritarian, non-democratic regime by international institutions, with constant human rights violations, rampant corruption and lack of an independent judiciary.

The Open Dialogue Foundation has raised its concerns over this case with the Members of the Belgian Parliament and has closely followed it, with ODF Advocacy Officer Xheni Dani commenting on it for national RTBF news following the proceedings. More background information on the persecution of Bota Jardemalie, as well as her brother, political prisoner Iskander Yerimbetov, can be found in our reports:

For further information on the parliamentary proceedings: