Andrew Osborn








'What shocks me is the lack of humanity', 10th October 2003 09:56

The violent death of an asylum seeker has forced Belgium to examine its collective conscience, says Andrew Osborn

Handcuffed and strapped into an airline seat against her will, Sémira Adamu, a 20-year old asylum seeker from Nigeria, lost her life trying to stay in Belgium.

Her final moments of consciousness were unpleasant in the extreme. Her face was pushed deep into a pillow, an elbow was shoved hard into her back, her ankles were shackled, and three Belgian gendarmes were doing their utmost to ensure that she could not move a muscle.

They were successful in that regard but, after seven or eight minutes, realised that they had gone too far.

As the air stewardess on the Togo-bound flight instructed passengers to fasten their seatbelts, the gendarmes realised that their charge had stopped breathing.

Her hands had become limp several minutes previously. The three men, however, had not thought anything of it - in fact, they had chatted and even joked among themselves.

Doctors would later confirm, however, that Sémira had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage caused by a lack of oxygen. In other words, she had suffocated to death.

This bungled, tragic deportation attempt happened in 1998, but the glacially slow workings of the Belgian justice system mean it is only now that the gendarmes accused of killing her accidentally - by using excessive force - are being held to account.

Sémira's is not a household name, but the trial, in Brussels' imposing palace of justice, is forcing the country to examine its collective conscience. Many people do not like what they see.

The fact that most of the disturbing episode was filmed by the police at the time has meant that harrowing pictures of Sémira's final moments have appeared in the Belgian press.

"They are terrible images," Inès a 26-year old nurse who watched the video in court, told daily La Dernière Heure.

"It seems like they were holding her down for such a long time. To keep her head pushed into a pillow without allowing her to breathe is inhumane. I can scarcely believe that such practices exist in Belgium." Marie-Claire, another shocked onlooker, said that justice must be seen to be done.

"What shocks me, in particular, is to observe the lack of humanity which reigns in Belgium. While the country calls itself civilized, we observe that the forces of law and order resort to such methods for deportations.

"The gendarmes say they are not responsible and were only following orders. Well, in that case we need to hear from the person who was giving these orders." Public outrage at the time forced the then interior minister, Flemish socialist Louis Tobback, to resign, but the real question now is whether the men whose brute force led to her tragic death will be punished or let off the hook.

Five men stand in the dock: the three gendarmes who physically restrained Sémira, and two senior officers who were on the plane to supervise the deportation. All five say they did not intend to kill Sémira, merely to subdue her.

It was the sixth attempt to deport her, and the men claim they were under pressure to ensure that it was a success. They also maintain that she had provoked them by starting to sing and shout.

When asked why they responded so quickly and with so much force, one of the men - identified only as Danny Cr. - told the court that it was necessary "in order to avoid disturbing the other passengers". The trial is not yet over, but it looks as though many of the men might receive suspended or light sentences.

"The sentences being sought are not severe enough," Hein Diependaele, one of the prosecuting lawyers, told daily newspaper Le Soir.

"It's strange, because the charges against them are very serious and the prosecution has revealed lies in their testimony.

"We are going to demand stiffer punishment, notably that the most senior of the five men is forced to accept legal responsibility for what happened."

Sémira's original application for asylum shows that she had been desperate to stay in Belgium, and was facing an unpalatable forced marriage in Nigeria.

"My sister-in-law wanted me to marry a man who is over 60 years old and who already has four wives," she wrote.

"According to Islam, my religion, a man cannot take more than four wives. This man is also dangerous. He has thrown acid in the face of one of his wives. He is not only old enough to be my grandfather, he is also brutal."

A poignant note found in her coat pocket at her autopsy said only: "Bye from me."

Immigrant support groups say that Belgium's asylum policy has not changed dramatically since her death.

A verdict is due before the end of the year.