Katie Verstrepen is President of the League for Human Rights, Jens van Lathem is a board member of LABO vzw, and Wies de Greif is Director of Amnesty International Flanders. “On their initiative”A space for protestThey oppose the use of GAS legislation to penalize social action and protest in cities and municipalities.
The gas legislation recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. During those ten years, gas legislation was put in place in every municipality. This has serious consequences for our human rights, especially now that gas fines are also being imposed during protest actions. The right to protest is under pressure from the federal level to the local level. We ask municipalities to protect this right and stop using gas fines in the context of election campaigns.
Municipal Administrative Sanctions, or GAS, allow cities and municipalities to punish nuisances and minor crimes. Municipalities can maintain order and peace without the need for a court. It is not the judge, but the municipal official who determines the violation, issues the fine and is responsible for collecting it. Each municipality determines what falls under its own local GAS legislation and therefore what is considered a nuisance.
The purely administrative solution to these minor crimes has opened a dangerous system in which the right of defense or the need to separate criminal and administrative law is hardly taken into account. Ten years ago, fierce protests broke out against the enlargement, including proceedings before the Constitutional Court. Many legal experts and opinion makers have spoken out about the excesses of this legislation. Because the gas law is spreading insidiously, with the promise that it only deals with limited nuisances and minor crimes that the judicial system doesn't pick up on.
Everyone is equal before the law
The same applies when it comes to the right to protest. Cities and municipalities do not pay enough attention to the consequences of gas fines. Despite political promises to the contrary, critical citizens are increasingly silenced with gas fines. When imposing a GAS fine for ignoring the mayor's order in April 2018, the then mayor of Ghent, Daniel Termont, stated very firmly that this fine would not be used against activists. Three months later it happened.
As expected, in recent years gas has become a tool to punish peaceful social action. Because almost all cities have decided to punish failure to request or report a protest in a timely manner with a fine from the GAS. Moreover, the great diversity of admission or reporting procedures creates uncertainty among concerned citizens. Anyone looking at the GAS regulations in the thirteen central cities will see a range of approval periods, ranging from an indefinite period (!) to a few calendar days.
Later, the gas fine is often handed out randomly. At events attended by dozens of people, one person is chosen to receive a GAS fine. This can prevent people from taking to the streets. This is called the “chilling effect”: pressuring someone not to exercise certain rights by threatening sanctions.
Defending yourself against this gas fine, It recently rose to 500 euros, hard thing. Those who do not qualify for a free attorney often pay more in attorney fees than the fine amount. You must first visit the official who imposed the gas fine on you. These are all obstacles to lifting the restriction on the right to protest under the supervision of an independent judge.
Protest is not a nuisance
Peaceful protest should not be treated in the same way as minor crimes or nuisance. In order not to be there The final example is by Lizz Printz, who received a GAS fine in Ghent for not asking for a promotion. However, the court ruled that Printz did not have to make the motion because it was a quick and spontaneous response to a current event. This proves that it is worthwhile to fight the gas regime, in principle and set precedents for the future.
Looking ahead to the 2024 local elections, cities face a choice. Do they provide an unconditional facilitation of our right to protest and do they remove it from the application of gas legislation? They then protect the right to protest during the politically and socially turbulent years ahead. If they do not, they are protecting an instrument that clearly violates human rights.
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