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Belgian cop given suspended sentence over toddler shooting

Published on February 12, 2021

A Belgian court on Friday gave a police officer a one-year suspended sentence over the fatal shooting of a two-year-old Kurdish girl during the chase of a van carrying migrants.

Victor-Manuel Jacinto Goncalves, 48, was found guilty of involuntary homicide after a trial in the southern city of Mons over the 2018 incident in which he opened fire at the vehicle.

The high-profile tragedy caused a scandal in Belgium and, for rights activists, became a symbol of the dangers posed by the “criminalisation” of irregular migration.

The Iraqi Kurdish driver of the vehicle, on trial alongside the police officer, was jailed for four years. A third man accused of being the people smuggler was acquitted.

The lawyer representing Goncalves, Laurent Kennes, said the conviction was a “great disappointment” and that the legal team will consider appealing.

The toddler named Mawda was fatally wounded in May 2018 when she was shot in the head as police chased a van being driven across Belgium by traffickers taking migrants from the continent to Britain.

The officer — who initially faced up to five years in jail — insisted he intended to shoot out a tyre to halt the suspect vehicle, but his car swerved violently and the bullet went astray.

Prosecutors ended up demanding only a one-year suspended sentence as they accepted that he had not “deliberately” intended to cause harm.

But they accused the policeman of recklessness and said he would have known that firing his gun could endanger lives.

Mawda’s parents, who left Iraq in 2015 and had intended to head to Britain, settled in Belgium after her death, granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

Their lawyer, Selma Benkhelifa, said “no judgment can erase their pain”.

But she welcomed the ruling, emphasising the danger of such a gunshot during a high-speed chase.

“I hope it will serve as an example for the police,” she said.

The case drew attention from celebrities — including Pink Floyd singer-songwriter Roger Waters and film director Ken Loach — who demanded justice for the slain toddler.

Rights activists in Belgium argue that such tragic deaths are made more likely by what they see as the “dehumanisation” of refugees and the “criminalisation” of migration.

Cooperation between French and Belgian services was also placed in the spotlight during the trial.

When the migrants’ van set off from northern France in May 2018, French investigators had placed a GPS tracker on board.

But Belgian police did not know it was already under surveillance when they tried to intercept the traffickers on a motorway south of Brussels.