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Biggest abuse scandal in history rocks Belgian Army

Revelations of widespread abuse have rocked the Belgian Army, with the Ministry of Defence disbanding an entire platoon and suspending dozens of officers on Thursday following revelations of longstanding abuse.

Between 20 and 30 officers and soldiers are implicated in one of the largest scandals ever to hit Belgian Defence Forces. The decision to disband a platoon at the Fourth Engineer Battalion in Amay, near Liège, is the most drastic measure the army has ever taken in response to a controversy.

An investigation that began in 2021 brought a web of abuse to light, where recruits were intimidated with humiliating hazing trials and officers of all levels suffered physically degrading acts, verbal threats and sexual harassment.

Defence Minister Ludovine Dedonder (PS) first became aware of the situation in late 2023. At a press conference on Thursday morning, she said the abuse was “structural” and condemned it as “unacceptable behaviour”.

Defence Inspector General Jan de Beurme, Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder (PS) and Chief of Defence Michel Hofman at a press conference on Thursday 14 March 2024. Credit: Belga / Eric Lalmand

“The wellbeing of our people is our priority,” said Dedonder. “Some soldiers have been suspended, others were transferred. It concerns several dozen soldiers, some experienced, others less experienced. This is a strict measure and a strong signal, but what happened is unacceptable.”

Chief of Defence Admiral Michel Hofman added that the behaviour within the platoon in question did not reflect the forces as a whole and was “incompatible” with army values.

“The wellbeing of our people is our priority,” said Dedonder. “Some soldiers have been suspended, others were transferred. It concerns several dozen soldiers, some experienced, others less experienced. This is a strict measure and a strong signal, but what happened is unacceptable.”

Chief of Defence Admiral Michel Hofman added that the behaviour within the platoon in question did not reflect the forces as a whole and was “incompatible” with army values.

Years of abuse

A culture of omertà in the army is blamed for having prevented the abuse from becoming known sooner. Initial reports in 2021 eventually gave way to a clearer understanding of the situation in autumn 2o23, and now, the subsequent decision to disband the platoon.

The unit comprised around 30 people, and Hofman explained that making sense of the case was highly complex as individuals involved were not just perpetrators, but victims and witnesses of acts separate to what they had committed themselves.

“The roles changed over time and that is what makes the investigation so complicated,” he said. “We hope to paint the full picture soon and then we will possibly be able to take additional measures.”

The platoon in Amay has always had a reputation for controversy, according to military trade unionist Yves Huwart (ACMP). “I don’t think it’s about one incident, but about an accumulation of incidents,” he told Gazet van Antwerpen.

Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder (R) pictured with the Military Engineering Department and DOVO-SEDEE Military Bomb Disposal Unit, in the framework of Aid to the Nation at Camp Adjudant Brasseur, in Amay, Tuesday 29 March 2022. Credit: Belga

Inspector General of Defence Vice-Admiral Jan De Beurme said that events in Amay were “clearly about integrity” and essentially boiled down to “norms and values.” He said it was his responsibility as “moral compass for defence” to ensure that the case was treated effectively and attentively as it continued to evolve.

“We will not let go of this file until there is complete clarity,” he said. Like Hofman, the inspector believes that further punitive measures are probable.

Dedonder is determined to show that the official response to the scandal is as transparent and proactive as possible. She thanked defence staff for their work and emphasised that “they deserve our trust and that of society.”

The victims are now receiving psychosocial support.

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