Belgian officer on trial for killing toddler Mawda Shawri as her family tried to reach UK

Rights groups say her death is symbolic of the injustices migrants face

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 21, 2018, the mother of Mawda Shawri, a two-year-old girl of Kurdish origin who died after police gave chase to a van carrying illegal migrants in Belgium, shows a picture of her daughter (R) during a press conference of "Solidarity for All" regarding the death of Mawda Shawr, in Brussels. - A Belgian police officer will appear in court on November 23, 2020, in the trial regarding the death of Mawda Shawri. The child died in the ambulance on her way to hospital in the night of May 16 and 17, 2018, after a police pursuit in Maizieres, near Mons, when she was hit by a police bullet while she was in a van with illegal immigrants. (Photo by THIERRY ROGE / BELGA / AFP) / Belgium OUT

A police officer who shot dead a two-year-old toddler who was travelling in a van of suspected migrant smugglers is on trial in Belgium.

The officer, who has not been named, is on trial for firing the shot that killed Mawda Shawri, one of two dozen Iraqi Kurdish migrants packed into the van as it tried to get to the UK.

Refugee rights groups supporting her grieving parents say they want Europe's criminalisation of undocumented immigration to be on trial as well.

Outside the court in Mons, toddlers’ clothes were hung up in protest against what activists called the dehumanising anti-immigration policy that cost Mawda her life. A handful of protesters called for "Justice for Mawda".

The police officer appeared in court with the driver of the van and the alleged people smuggler, both Iraqi Kurds.

A woman hangs a piece of children's clothing on a line during a solidarity event for Mawda Shawri at the courthouse in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. A trial opened on Monday in the shooting death of two-year old toddler, Mawda Shawri, who was in a van during a high-speed chase between police and suspected migrant smugglers seeking to get to Britain. At the trial in Belgium's southern Mons, a policeman stands accused of involuntary manslaughter and two other men for being suspected migrant smugglers. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

In May 2018, police wanted to check on a van making its way through Belgium and a chase began when the driver tried to evade them.

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These are people who are fleeing terror, frightened for their lives, fleeing across Europe

During the high-speed pursuit, police shot at the van and Mawda died, crouched with her parents behind the driver.

Her death has become a symbol of injustice towards migrants and refugees fleeing their homelands to seek a better life in Europe.

Belgian authorities said a shot was fired to stop the car and there was no intention to hit the people inside.

The officer, 48, said he had intended to shoot out a tyre to halt the suspect vehicle. He is charged with involuntary homicide.

Lawyers acting for Mawda's parents say the charge should be increased to reflect a deliberate killing.

A man wears a protective face mask as he attends a solidarity event for Mawda Shawri at the courthouse in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. A trial opened on Monday in the shooting death of two-year old toddler, Mawda Shawri, who was in a van during a high-speed chase between police and suspected migrant smugglers seeking to get to Britain. At the trial in Belgium's southern Mons, a policeman stands accused of involuntary manslaughter and two other men for being suspected migrant smugglers. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

"To take out his weapon, load it and fire it towards a van full of migrants – it's not just a lack of due care, we should not minimise it like that," said lawyer Selma Benkhelifa.

Among those supporting the Justice for Mawda cause on social media are musicians Peter Gabriel and Roger Waters, and British film director Ken Loach.

“These are people who are fleeing terror, frightened for their lives, fleeing across Europe, the most exploited, the most endangered people – the poorest, most vulnerable people we can imagine,” Mr Loach said. Such people should not be shot at, he said.

The officer, with eight years’ experience, said he felt "wiped out" after the death.

“It’s a horror” to be responsible for the death of a child, his lawyer Laurent Kennes said.

"He feels that everything has fallen on him, that he has to carry the errors of the state prosecutors, of migration policy."

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