Letter From Brussels

Trash the SAC

Julie Robert

The new law setting up the 'Sanctions Administratives Communales' or SAC (sanctions to administer townships) is a ridiculous joke.
—  In Hasselt, it is forbidden to sit on the backrest of a bench.
—  In Saint-Nicolas, it is forbidden to climb trees.
—  In Lokeren, it is forbidden to throw snowballs.
—  In Ostende, a man received a SAC after he picked up some litter to put them in a public trash.
—  In Malines, young boys received a SAC because they ate their sandwiches under the porch of a church.
—  In Termonde, you can get a SAC if you interrupt your way down a water slide.
—  In Deinze, people who throw back confetti picked up on the floor might receive a SAC.
The list can be carried on. In Belgium, every township has its own regulations.

In 1999, their institutions were given a new weapon—the SAC. At that time, its scope was more or less vague and so authorities were not very enthusiastic about its implementation. A new law was passed in 2004, giving the empowering the so called 'noting' agents. Those agents (policemen, gatekeepers of parks, prevention officers, etc.) were empowered to draw up a report and to pass it on to the town authorities. This new version of the law was more convenient for authorities to implement. Willing to take the extra step, the Belgian government started a re-think on the SAC in 2012. A new law was again passed June 2013 and gave total autonomy to each town to lay down the objectionable behaviour and also to lay down the consequent sanctions. The two most important points of this statute are:
—  extended application of the law to people as young as 14 years olds.
—  increase of fines up to E350 for adults, and El 75 for minors.
This law has been voted upon, despite vast protest movements all across the country. Several times during the last two years, Belgian youth took to the streets to denounce the SAC law. They were, and are still, backed by various organisations such as trade unions, opposition political parties, organisations for human and child rights, etc. In October last year, more than 2000 people attended a demonstration in Brussels.
Basically, the SAC enables to punish anyone who does not respect the township regulation. Its main purpose is to punish all the small acts of 'indiscretion'. The acts may be a demonstration or any other community activity on the street, etc. There are four different offences included in the statute:
—  'simple' offences, which are not criminally punishable and so encompass all the small acts of 'indiscretion'.
—  'other' offences: dumping of unwanted stuff in unauthorised places, starting fire in and around fields, etc.
—  1st category 'hybrid' offences, in accordance with the Public Prosecutor's department (inflicting blows & cuts & wounds, insults, larcenies, etc.)
—  2nd category 'hybrid' offences, in accordance with the Public Prosecutor's department (degradation of monuments, disturbing the peace at night, etc.)

The sanctions are draconian since the person charged has no recourse to the judiciary. The enactment works like this. A 'noting' agent notes the offence and gives his report to a sanctioning officer. This officer is paid by the township to send the administrative sanctions. It is him/her that will decide how much the person will have to pay. Therefore, everything depends on his or her arbitrary judgement. This is especially true as there isn't any scope for appeal. This means that the SAC statute does not follow the tenets of independence, transparency and rights protection rules as the other laws, in particular the penal laws. Moreover, it sweeps away the principle of separation of powers, the very basis of the Belgian Constitution. The township decides of the rule, it notices the offense and it punishes. But who controls the township?

One must admit that since its coming into force, the SAC law has served its purpose for the authorities. In a small township of Brussels, 6000 sanctions have been given in one year. As feared by most of the organisations for the civil liberties, the SAC enactment is only giving a total control of the public space to the authorities. Since the authorities have numerous weapons up their sleeve, they manage to muzzle any public acts of dissent that may annoy them. The law gives the authority a scope to add new offences to the prohibited list since they wish to counter any acts of dissent that may disturb them. Most of the time, these are acts falling within the freedom of expression and of demonstration. Looking at the facts, one can surmise that the offences punished are seldom incivilities or acts of nuisance. Thanks to the township regulations, the authorities can add any number of acts to the list of offences in order to suppress any act of dissent and protest. For instance, a lot of townships have introduced an offence of 'disruption of the traffic'. This provision is useful to prevent any public demonstration, as every marcher can then be punished. This also means that when policemen on duty at a demonstration are in a good mood then everything is fine. But if anything happens to upset them then they can administer SACs to any demonstrator they want. Yet, demonstrating is a legitimate act of freedom of expression. As per the European Court of Human Rights, the authorities must show tolerance towards peaceful demonstrations, even when they take place without any official permission or when they do not respect the formalities provided by the township regulation.

Individuals below the age of 14 can be charged under SAC and the law puts the country in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It implies an erosion of the system of protection of justice towards the minors, which states that they can't be penalised like adults. But as the SAC is not subject to judicial scrutiny and it does at times violate the protective rights of minors. Moreover, imposing fines on minors is an absurdity for it is the parents will pay in the end. Even if a minor behaves badly in a public space, what will s/he learn from the SAC? In the end, the authorities succeed in criminalising the youth as they choose more and more the path of repression instead of the path of education.

The same can be said about the people who depend on the street for their living. Of course, they are easy targets of the SAC as any of their action might, be noted and sanctioned. But these are the people who have already been marginalised by the prevailing social system. With the enactment of SAC, the Belgina government has admitted its ineptitude to take care of the socio-economic problems of the population. Instead of providing a social system and a justice that guarantees a harmonious society, it has chosen the dangerous path of arbitrary denial of fundamental rights.

The SACs are one of the numerous measures taken by the establishment to withdraw the public space from the people. One can conclude that the street does not belong to people anymore. Streets, squares and walls have been captured by the commercial interests. And the authorities are working on the 'security' of the space, to reassure the capitalists who buy it bit by bit. Cameras at every corner, more and more policemen, and now a widening of the SACs, steps are taken everyday to drive away and control people and their actions in the public space. But the street belongs to everyone and a movement shaking the country, led by numerous youth organisations, is trying to counter this tendency. Unfortunately, even 2000 people in a street demonstration could not convince the ministers two months back. In November, the Belgian league for the defence of the human rights had introduced a case to ask for the abrogation of the law. A few days ago, two important national trade unions announced that they have filed a case before the Constitutional Court to fight the SAC legislation. At the time of writing this article, the law to capture public spaces is still in force, and it is creating a lot of social damage.


Vol. 46, No. 39, Apr 6 - 12, 2014