A Belgian court handed a one-year suspended sentence to a police officer over the fatal shooting of a two-year-old migrant girl. The officer shot at a van carrying migrants during a car chase, resulting in the toddler’s death.
Police officer Victor-Manuel Jacinto Goncalves was found guilty of involuntary homicide in the southern Belgian city of Mons over the May 2018 incident. The 48-year-old officer had opened fire at a vehicle during a car chase, killing a two-year-old Kurdish girl named Mawda on a motorway south of the Belgian capital, Brussels.
The girl was shot in the head as police chased a van across Belgium, in which migrants were being trafficked by smugglers to Britain. The high-profile tragedy became a symbol in Belgium of the dangers of the blanket "criminalization" of irregular migration, especially in law enforcement circles.
Jacinto Goncalves — who had at first faced spending up to five years in jail — insisted during the trial that he had intended to shoot out a tyre to halt the vehicle; when his car swerved violently, the bullet went astray, hitting the little girl in the head. The police officer told the court he would not have fired the shot if he had known migrants were inside.
Prosecutors accepted early on that the officer had not "deliberately" intended to cause any bodily harm, reducing the sentence to a one-year suspended sentence on the second day of the trial. However, they nevertheless accused the policeman of reckless behavior, stating that he should have known that firing his gun could endanger lives. The prosecution said that "any reasonable man" would have held his fire.
Despite the scathing court statements, the lawyer representing Goncalves said the conviction was still a "great disappointment" and that the legal team would consider launching legal appeals.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish driver of the vehicle transporting the migrants was jailed for four years in the same trial. A third man accused of being the people smuggler behind the operation was acquitted.
Deadly communication error
Mawda's parents, who had left Iraq in 2015, wanted originally to reach Britain, but settled in Belgium after the death of the girl, as they were granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds following the tragic incident. Their lawyers said that "no judgment can erase their pain," adding however that she hoped it would "serve as an example for the police."
The high-speed car chase took place despite the fact that French investigators had placed a GPS tracker on board the vehicle in order to intercept the smuggling attempt. The Belgian police, however, said it did not know that the van was already under surveillance when they tried to intervene. The incident raised questions about the quality of police cooperation between the two neighboring EU states.
The case drew international attention from various celebrities — including Pink Floyd singer-songwriter Roger Waters and British film director Ken Loach. They were joined by rights activists in Belgium who argued that such tragic deaths occurred because of what they regarded as the "dehumanisation" and perceived "criminalization" of migration.
Cooperation between French and Belgian services was also placed in the spotlight during the trial. Jacinto Goncalves meanwhile expressed regret over Mawda’s death, saying the incident had left him "shattered."
"If I'd known there was a child, I never would have pulled out my gun," he told the court.