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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

Belgium: family say death of Belgian-Tunisian woman in custody not suicide

A picture of Sourour Abouda at her vigil, Brussels.
A picture of Sourour Abouda at her vigil in Brussels. Photograph: Présence et Action Culturelles

The death of a Belgian-Tunisian woman in police custody earlier this month has been rejected by her family as a case of suicide, while casting a spotlight on the treatment of minority ethnic citizens by Belgium’s police.

Sourour Abouda, a 46-year-old NGO worker, was found dead in a police cell early in the morning of 12 January, after being arrested several hours before. She had been found drunk in the fashionable district of Place Châtelain in Brussels and taken to a police station in the city centre, according to local media reports that have not been officially confirmed.

Her family were told she had killed herself by strangling herself with her jumper, a hypothesis close relatives have robustly rejected. “My sister was not someone suicidal,” an unnamed relative told Belgian’s francophone public broadcaster RTBF. “She had a son of 19 years old who she lived with and who meant everything to her. She would never have abandoned him.”

A lawyer acting in the case, Selma Benkhelifa, said the family “did not believe at all” the suicide hypothesis, adding that it seemed impossible Abouda had strangled herself with her own jumper.

Writing on Instagram, Sourour Abouda’s son, Allan, described his mother as an “extraordinary person who loved life” and “exemplary mother” to him and other children who crossed her path.

“Whatever happened, procedural mistakes were made,” he wrote. “I think it is clear to all of us that a death in a police station is abnormal, impossible and unforgivable. The police are only there to protect us. Something like this should never happen.”

The case has now been referred to “Committee P”, the Belgian police watchdog, which is analysing CCTV footage from the cells.

people attend a vigil held for Sourour Abouda outside the Rue Royale police station.
People attend a vigil for Sourour Abouda outside the Rue Royale police station. Photograph: Présence et Action Culturelles

In a preliminary finding, the Brussels prosecutor’s office has ruled out foul play by the police, or anyone else in Abouda’s death. “Based on initial findings and an interim report from the autopsy, it would seem there was no intervention by a third party,” the Brussels prosecutor said on 16 January, adding that the results of a toxicological analysis would be available in the coming weeks. Contacted on Friday, the Brussels prosecutor said there was nothing to add to this previous statement and the investigation remained ongoing.

A spokesperson for the local police station declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Sourour Abouda is the third person of north African origin to die at the same police station on Brussels’ Rue Royale in controversial circumstances in two years. In January 2021, a 29-year-old Algerian national, Ilyes Abbedou, was found dead in a cell, after being arrested for not having the right to stay in Belgium. In December 2021 a second Algerian man, Mohamed Amine Berkhane, born in 1995, died in a cell in the same station, despite efforts by an ambulance crew called to save him. In both cases, following autopsies, the authorities ruled out any intervention by a third party in their deaths.

Both official investigations remain open and the Brussels prosecutor declined to comment on the cases.

In the days after Sourour Abouda’s death, about 100 people held a vigil on a rainy night outside the Rue Royale police station, an event organised by Sarah de Liamchine, co-director of Presence and Cultural Action, the NGO that employed Abouda.

Speaking to the Guardian, de Liamchine said there were questions to answer about the death of her colleague. “There are a series of cases when following a police intervention people have died – and in 95% of these cases they are people of foreign origin,” she said, also referring to the deaths of the two Algerian men and a two-year-old Kurdish girl shot dead by police in a high-speed pursuit of suspected people smugglers.

De Liamchine said anyone arrested for drunkenness should be seen by a doctor before being put into a cell: “The procedure was not respected and that we know already. A person arrested by the police in a state of intoxication should be safe in the custody of police. On no account should that person be found dead either by their own hand or some other means.”

The afternoon before she died Sourour Abouda joined a few dozen colleagues at the NGO for a staff gathering, where she seemed like her usual self, recalled de Liamchine. Abouda had talked to colleagues about an upcoming holiday to Portugal and her plans for the year ahead. “Everyone was shocked [by her death], because everyone said she was no different from her usual self.”

De Liamchine recalls her colleague as someone who liked her job and was always ready to help out. “She was truly someone who turned towards others, very participative at work and very sociable.”

The case is also being followed by Tunisia’s government. In a message to its citizens in Belgium, Tunisia’s embassy said everything necessary was being done, in coordination with Belgian authorities, to find out the exact circumstances of the death of a Tunisian national in police custody on 12 January, without naming the individual.

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