Koen Geens (CD&V), the then Minister of Justice who opened the Deradex departments in 2016, called them “a last resort”. Lawyer Nicolas Cohen, who defends terror suspects, calls them “a stigmatizing sinkhole.”
Cohen: “Alone in a cell, not talking to others, no education or work, never an exit permit… I can understand that someone who is dangerous would go into isolation for a while until he cools down, but not for years, right?”
Belgium suffered from Muslim extremism in 2015 and 2016 and one conviction followed another. To prevent them from ‘infecting’ other detainees with radical thoughts, two high-security Deradex departments were created. One in Hasselt and one in Ittre. These do not necessarily serve the most serious terrorists, but do serve to isolate the charismatic ideologues and recruiters, the so-called hate preachers, from the rest.
“We ironically called it the Champions League of the terrorists,” says criminal lawyer Abderrahim Lahlali.
Sharia4Belgium leader Fouad Belkacem was on Deradex, as was Brussels recruiter Jean-Louis Denis, who has since been released at the end of his sentence. A total of 40 Deradex places were provided, but according to the prison system there were a maximum of thirty prisoners at the peak. There is currently only one, the Prison Service spokesperson confirms, and it is in Ittre. Hasselt’s has been abolished.
“Given the overcrowding in the prisons in Hasselt, the department has simply been used by other convicts,” says spokesperson Kathleen Van De Vijver. “In Ittre too, we are allowing detainees to use the empty cells as quickly as possible. Every place counts.”
The morning was able to find out that the last Deradex resident in Ittre is the one who inaugurated the department in April 2016. Khalid Zerkani, nicknamed Papa Noel, recruited in Brussels and offered up to 6,000 euros for those who wanted to travel to Syria or Iraq. Members of his network eventually struck in Paris, Brussels and Zaventem.
“We have made an administrative and legal crossroads to get him out of that department,” says his lawyer Simon Saelens. “Once they succeeded, they placed him under an even stricter regime than before. Now he has signed a document that he wants to stay at Deradex.”
Are the Deradex departments empty due to years of criticism? Or because overpopulation no longer allows isolation? Never have so many people been stuck in Belgium. With 12,000 detainees, 1,500 more are in custody than the maximum capacity in principle allows.
“No, there are fewer outspoken preachers of hate,” says Van De Vijver. “But we now have a multidisciplinary team, with which we can quickly scale up again if necessary.”