A court in Brussels has ordered a former Belgian lawmaker to visit five Nazi concentration camps and write about his experiences as punishment for publicly denying the Holocaust, a crime in Belgium.
Laurent Louis, a far-right politician and self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist,” was convicted of Holocaust denial in 2015 after he wrote blog posts publicly doubting whether Jews were killed en masse in Nazi gas chambers during the Second World War. He received a roughly $20,000 fine and a six-month suspended prison sentence.
But recently, the Brussels Court of Appeal put the prison sentence on hold and instead ordered him to take one trip per year for the next five years to Nazi death camps, including the infamous Auschwitz camp in Poland, Agence France Press reported.
Following each visit he must write at least 50 lines describing what he saw in the camps and “the feelings he experienced,” according to AFP. He is required to submit the texts to the court and post them on his personal Facebook account, where he has some 50,000 followers.
More than a dozen countries in Europe have passed laws banning Nazism and outlawing various degrees of Holocaust denial. Promoting the Holocaust, minimizing its impact or denying it outright are illegal under a 1995 Belgian law and punishable by fines and prison time.
Louis, a 37-year-old who served in Belgium’s parliament from 2010 to 2014, cheered the sentence as a “total victory” in a series of Facebook posts but offered his apologies to “those who were hurt by my words.”
“All that I have left to do is do the reports from the death camps. No doubt the court recognized my talents as a writer,” wrote Louis, who recently self-published a book on his political views.
“More seriously, I will abide by the court’s ruling and go and repent every year in a death camp,” he continued. “In addition to being very instructive and very powerful on the human level, this will be an opportunity also to denounce current genocides.”
During his roughly four years in Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, Louis seemed to take pride in being a political insurgent. He was voted in as a member of the country’s center-right conservative party but was kicked out after just a few months amid tension with its leadership. He briefly joined the country’s Islamic party but was booted there after trying to proclaim himself party president. He went on to found the far-right Debout Les Belges! (Belgians, Rise Up!) movement.
In 2014, Louis accused then-prime minister Elio Di Rupo of being a pedophile in a speech in parliament. He was later convicted of slander and received an eight-month suspended prison sentence.
He has a long track record of inflammatory and conspiratorial remarks about Jews and Israel. He argued on Facebook and in Parliament that Zionists had bankrolled the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, saying “the Holocaust was set up and financed by the pioneers of Zionism.” He once trampled an Israeli flag during a demonstration in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And he is fond of giving the “quenelle,” a gesture similar to the Nazi salute that is popular among neo-Nazis in France.
Members of Parliament and outside organizations have repeatedly condemned Louis as anti-Semitic, and advocacy groups have filed a complaints saying his remarks were an incitement to violence.
The Belgian League Against anti-Semitism was among the plaintiffs in Louis’s trial. When he was convicted of Holocaust denial in 2015, the judge ruled that he made multiple statements downplaying the atrocities committed by Nazis in World War II and criticized his conduct in the courtroom.
“During his trial, Mr. Louis seemed to think he was in parliament rather than in a court of law,” the judge said, according to the Times of Israel. “He expressed little regret toward the people he offended and offers little evidence in the way of correcting his ways.”
Louis’s sentence is unusual but not unheard-of. In 2013, a court in Hungary ordered a Holocaust denier to visit Auschwitz, the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest or Israel’s Yad Vashem and write about the trip. The man was convicted of carrying a sign in public that read “the Holocaust never happened” in Hebrew. It was the first punishment issued under Hungary’s Holocaust denial law, which took effect in 2010, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Such a prosecution is virtually unfathomable in the United States, where Holocaust denial and other forms of controversial speech enjoy sweeping protections under the First Amendment.
But a judge handed down a sentence not unlike Louis’s earlier this year to five teenage boys who spray painted a historic black school in Ashburn, Virginia, with swastikas and racist graffiti. Rather than give the boys jail time or community service, the judge ordered them to read books by black, Jewish and Afghan authors, write a research paper on hate speech and visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Derek Hawkins