Advocacy update

Belgian Court Refers Saudi Victim Standing Issue to CJEU

December 15, 2023
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A court in Belgium is asking the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to clarify the scope of EU legislation on the rights of crime victims—in connection with a complaint accusing officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of crimes against humanity.   

The complaint was submitted by the Justice Initiative in December 2021 on behalf of two sisters of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, who was arrested in 2018 in Saudi Arabia and arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, and tortured. Her sisters, Alia and Lina, are both Belgian residents, while Lina is also a Belgian citizen.  

Belgium’s federal prosecutor had asked the court to reject the complaint, arguing that the crimes committed would not amount to crimes against humanity, and that Alia and Lina al-Hathloul would not have standing to file a complaint in Belgium, because they are not the direct victims of the crimes cited in the complaint.  

The Justice Initiative's lawyers counter-argued as follows: 

On crimes against humanity: the brief of the prosecutor did not take into account the context in which the crimes were committed, namely a state policy deliberately targeting a group—political dissidents—who are victims of serious crimes, because of the disagreements they express with the political regime in place.  

We underlined that the complaint could only be dismissed if the facts did not constitute crimes against humanity prima facie. Otherwise, it is the responsibility of the investigative judge to investigate the facts alleged, and to build a credible case by documenting the offences, and bringing additional evidence before the court. 

On legal standing: we made two arguments: first, that Alia and Lina are direct victims because they denounced the enforced disappearance and torture of their sister Loujain; according to international law, family members are direct victims of enforced disappearance and torture.  

Secondly, we questioned the claimed limitation of standing to direct victims, citing both international law and EU Directive on victims’ rights, and asked the court to make a referral to the CJEU. 

The court in Brussels ruled on December 12, 2023, that the crimes cited in the complaint are well documented and amount prima facie to crimes against humanity.  

On the question of standing, the court decided to make a referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union, asking two questions regarding the scope of the EU directive on victims’ rights: 

  1. Would the directive’s definition of “victims” include members of the immediate family of a person who, in the context of a serious violation of international humanitarian law, has been subjected to enforced disappearance or torture, taking into account the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the United Nations Convention against Torture? 
  2. Would it include family members who have suffered harm to their mental or emotional integrity, or material loss that has been directly caused by a serious violation of international humanitarian law that has primarily targeted a close family member.  

This is a significant decision not only for Belgium but also for other EU countries. If the CJEU delivers an expansive definition of "victims” to include close family members not directly targeted by a specific crime, it could make it possible for the families of people directly affected by crimes against humanity to file extra-territorial/universal jurisdiction complaints in courts across the EU.  

Maïté De Rue, the lead lawyer of the Justice Initiative on the case, told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir: “Nothing is decided yet. But for the first time in 20 years we have here an opening in Belgium that would allow family members to use the law in Belgium to seek justice for crimes against humanity.” 

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