Hans Van Themsche
Hans Van Themsche (born 7 February 1988 in Wilrijk, Antwerp, Flemish Region of Belgium) was, at age 18, a student who, in the city of Antwerp, shot three people; life-threateningly injuring one and killing two, before being stopped by a police bullet. His conviction of lifelong incarceration for these racism-motivated crimes followed in 2008.
The highly mediatized event drew major public and political attention to responsibilities regarding political presentation of immigrant and racial issues and its possible effects on individuals.
Course of events
Van Themsche had been caught smoking at his boarding school on 9 May 2006, and was facing likely expulsion.
He travelled from Roeselare to Antwerp where, on the morning of the eleventh, he had his long hair cut and shaven off (apart from a ponytail) before legally purchasing a Marlin 336W hunting rifle in .30-30 Winchester and ammunition from a local weapons merchant. About ten minutes before noon, dressed in a Gothic fashion, he began his rampage in the city centre with a shot in the breast of a woman of Turkish descent who was seated six metres away on a bench reading a book; Songul Koç was severely wounded. He chambered another round and passed a pregnant Malian nanny, Oulemata Niangadou, and her two-year-old European charge, Luna Drowart. He turned and shot each of them in the back at close range, killing both instantly. While he moved on (presumably looking for more victims) Van Themsche was intercepted by a passing police officer, who held him at gunpoint and ordered him to surrender the rifle. After Van Themsche's refusal to put his weapon down and upon a suspicious movement, the officer fired once, neutralizing him with a shot to the stomach. Later on, the father of the killer would comment: "In my eyes, the policeman who shot down my son is a hero. I'm glad the man had so much courage, or else even more victims would have fallen."
Van Themsche, while being treated in hospital, described himself as a skinhead and admitted to police – as he had before the murders to boarding school friends – to specifically targeting non-whites. Of the 2-year old (white) child, Van Themsche said she was "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Her death, however, was not incidental, since he had to chamber a new round before each shot. He told his interrogators "the presence near a black was sufficient reason" to kill the toddler. According to his statement, his reason for targeting coloured people is that youths of foreign descent used to bully him at school; that would have been at least three years earlier. A farewell letter found in his room – as he may not have expected to survive – did not declare the premeditated murderous intent to which he confessed but did reveal that he wanted to take action against self-perceived "chaos in society".
At trial, the defense lawyers argued that Van Themsche, who suffered from Asperger Syndrome and narcissistic personality disorder, was insane. On 11 October, a jury of 12 citizens found Van Themsche guilty on all charges pressed against him, including the murder of Oulemata Niangadou and Luna Drowart. They also judged that the murders were motivated by racism. The next day, the jury and the three professional judges of the Court of Assize sentenced him to life imprisonment. The Court of Cassation rejected Van Themsche's appeal in February 2008. By June 2009, civil lawsuits at Antwerp had recognized a total of nearly 325,000 euro for damages to victims' families and Songul Koç whom he had caused a permanent professional disability of 55 percent; further treatment costs would add to his dues.
The King and the Prime Minister reacted within hours: Albert II sent a message to the victims' families; the Royal Palace press service explicitly reminded on the King's well-known perspective on racism and violence to have been illuminated in his January speech before the several Institutions of the country. Guy Verhofstadt was quoted as saying: "These horrific, cowardly murders are a form of extreme racism. It should be clear to everyone now where extreme right can lead to." The president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, noted that the succession of attacks "shows that the step from xenophobic talk to crime is, unfortunately, possible".
Murderer's background and alleged responsibility of Vlaams Belang and its voters
Though the Antwerp public prosecutors said "on first investigation of his environment and family [Hans] seems not to be brought up in a racialist or violent setting" and the family became described as "well-behaved" and as having an "impeccable Flemish-nationalist pedigree" — the fact that the gunman's aunt, Frieda Van Themsche, was a member of parliament for the large far right party with anti-immigrant rhetoric Vlaams Belang, immediately brought press attention to the murderer's family background. In World War II, the twin brothers Van Themsche voluntarily fought on the side of their country's occupier, Nazi Germany, in Waffen SS uniform against the Soviets on the Eastern Front, costing one brother's life and Hans' grandfather Karel a leg; in the sixties he joined the Volksunie, in 1978 following Karel Dillen into its hard right split-off Vlaams Blok. Also his children Frieda and Peter, who would about ten years later father Hans, were earliest day members and became militants.
On 12 April, Vlaams Belang MP Alexandra Colen's husband Paul Beliën, named a Vlaams Belang ideologist and a publicist, reportedly had called upon the Flemish people to get rid of people of Arab origin in a pamphlet titled 'Give us weapons'. That title referred to a 1963 –then obviously figurative– outcry refutedly ascribed to the later Prime Minister Martens that was related to disputes between Belgian speakers of Dutch and of French. Beliën withdrew his text upon an official complaint by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Fight against Racism (CEOFR or CGKR).
Public debate targeted the Vlaams Belang party with claims that it was partly morally responsible for the murderous shooting at Antwerp. In addition to their decade-long calls for a tighter immigration policy – including in its previous incarnation as the Vlaams Blok, the removal of Belgian citizens of foreign ethnicity – this party is in favour of armed self-defence; except for its principle public figure, Filip Dewinter, who has specifically distanced himself from this notion in the aftermath of this murder spree. One month before the latter on the other hand, he had published: "We've had enough of serving as autochthonous chased game. Instead of going through life as scaredy-hares, we should rather become foresters." The used Dutch term for a scaredy-cat refers to the often hunted animal, for a forester to a patrol officer often against poachers and then typically armed with a shotgun (and possibly the less easily perceived 9 mm semiautomatic handgun).
Carl Devos (nl), a political scientist at Ghent University, reportedly stated: "It's intellectually unfair to blame the act of a lunatic on a political party, whatever his family ties to the Vlaams Belang, but the VB is responsible for creating an atmosphere and popularizing the theme of racial tension."
In a press release on 12 May, the Belgian Movement against Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Xenophobia (MRAX) stated: "This violence does not come from nowhere. It is the result of years of ambiguous or openly racist discourse, which aims to make 'foreigners' responsible for individual frustrations and social misery" and questioned Belgium's continued public financing of political parties such as Vlaams Belang, which, according to MRAX, encouraged the stigmatization of ethnic minorities in Belgium. Four days later the European Network Against Racism cited that press release and added "Europe must act to address the reality of racism in its societies".
- Is Vlaams Belang morally responsible for the murders? 24% yes, 46% no, 30% unsure
- Will Vlaams Belang suffer in the next election? 37% yes, 34% no, 28% unsure
- Should government funding to Vlaams Belang be cut? 30% yes, 50% no, 20% unsure
On 18 May, the political parties Socialist Party - Different, Spirit, Socialist Party, Reformist Movement and Humanist Democratic Centre filed a complaint against Vlaams Belang with the Belgian Council of State, attempting to decrease the party's state funding (dotation).
The family of Luna denounced a letter of sympathy from Vlaams Belang, and asked to be left in peace until after the funeral. The African nanny was buried in Mali, repatriated at the expense of the city of Antwerp. After Luna's funeral, her parents' advocate asked Vlaams Belang to withdraw a campaign banner that displays a little blond girl, reminding them too much of their daughter, "additionally because the child's killer comes precisely from that environment." A spokesman for Vlaams Belang responded that the party already at its Monday management meeting had decided to remove the banner.
A week after the killings, the polling site De Stemmenkampioen asked its panel: "Is there a connection between the murders committed by Hans Van Themsche and Vlaams Belang?", with response 36% yes, 59% no, 5% unsure.
On 19 May on Canvas TV, foreign minister Karel De Gucht held "not only the extreme right Vlaams Belang party" but "also the voters of this party" responsible "for the climate of racism" in which the murders took place.
Mayor Patrick Janssens and several hundred locals followed the family of Oulemata Niangadou and representatives of African and Turkish organisations in a silent march towards the spots of the shootings on the morning thereafter. Amongst speeches held, the president of the city's Council for the Policy regarding Ethnical and Cultural Minorities, Georges Kamanayo, accused "the leaders of extreme right parties" of moral complicity.
An impromptu peaceful protest against Vlaams Belang organized on 15 May at Brussels held the traditional minute of silence for Van Themsche's victims.
During the night of 16–17 May 2006, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the head office of the Flemish nationalist youth organisation Vlaams Nationaal Jeugdverbond (VNJ) in Berchem that has links to the Vlaams Belang. A Turkish courier could quickly extinguish the fire, especially as the apartment above the office was inhabited (as it turned out, by the mother of New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) president Bart De Wever).
In the wake of the murders, the government tried to take action against Flemish entries on websites where it judged hate and racism to be spread, such as Stormfront. This proved difficult, because the sites are American and protected by the First Amendment.
In July 2007, a municipal decree came in effect that forbids the display of weapons in Antwerp shop windows. The Governor of the Province rejected the appeal filed by arms dealer Lang, who had sold Van Themsche the murder weapon.
- (Dutch) De vermoorde onschuld ("The murdered innocence", here rather literally taken Dutch expression for ostensible innocence) by publicist Manu Claeys, 25 May 2006, on webzine (in the Netherlands) Ravage Digitaal
- Media technologies and democracy in an enlarged Europe chapter: '4. Case-study: Blogs, online forums, public spaces and the extreme right in North Belgium' (in particular '4.2.2. The murder of Oulematou Niangadou and Luna Drowart'), Bart Cammaerts, Tartu University Press 2007, ISSN 17363918 (print) ISBN 978-9949-11-744-4 (print) ISSN 17364752 (PDF) ISBN 978-9949-11-745-1 (PDF)
- Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region: Incidents and Responses, Annual Report for 2006 PART I. Hate-Motivated Violence: Incidents and National Responses - p.63, p.68 (incl. footnotes 376 and, for the European Network Against Racism declaration, 377) Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), 2007 (web retrieval 5 February 2010)
- "Wapenwet: Wapen als Van Themsche? Wij kochten het via internet". Gva.be. 2012-11-21. Retrieved 2012-11-25.
- (Dutch) In 54 minuten veranderde alles ("In 54 minutes, everything changed") - Van Themsche's 11 May 2006 in great detail, journal Het Nieuwsblad, 26 September 2007
- (Dutch) Moorden Antwerpen / Racisme was de drijfveer voor koele moordenaar ("Murders Antwerp / Racism was the motivation for cool blooded murderer"), journal (in The Netherlands) Trouw, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Leiders extreemrechts zijn medeplichtig ("Leaders extreme right are also responsible"), web news VRT, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Jonge dader bekent racistisch motief ("Young culprit confesses racist motive"), journal De Morgen, 13 May 2006
- (Dutch) Gepest door allochtonen ("Harassed by allochthones"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 13 May 2006
- (Dutch) Quote. Peter Van Themsche, journal De Standaard, 13 May 2006
- (Dutch) Belgisch moordproces van start ("Belgian murder trial starts") journal (in The Netherlands) De Pers, 1 October 2007
- (Dutch) Antwerpse killer wou "afrekenen met ordeloosheid in de samenleving" ("Antverpian killer wanted ‘to get even with’ [or ‘rid of’] ‘chaos in society’"), web news anchor super moderator VTM: the News, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Cassatie verwerpt beroep Hans Van Themsche ("[Court of] Cassation rejects appeal Hans Van Temsche"), journal De Morgen, 19 February 2008
- (Dutch) Van Themsche moet overlevend slachtoffer 180.000 euro betalen ("Van Themsche has to pay 180,00 euro to surviving victim"), journal De Morgen, 26 June 2009
- (Dutch) Koning stuurt boodschap naar families van slachtoffers schietpartij ("King sends message to shooting victims' families"), journal Het Laatste Nieuws (web retrieval 11 May 2006 21:15)
- (Dutch) Schutter neef parlementariër Vlaams Belang "Shooter nephew parliamentarian Vlaams Belang", journal (in The Netherlands) De Telegraaf, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Verhofstadt veroordeelt racistische moord "Verhofstadt condemns racist murder"), journal Gazet van Antwerpen, 12 May 2006 (web retrieval 5 February 2010)
- (Dutch) De clan Van Themsche is overtuigd maar ,,braaf" Vlaams-nationalistisch ("Van Themsche clan is convinced but "well-behaved" Flemish nationalistic"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 13 May 2006
- (Dutch) Schutter Antwerpen had geen vooropgezet plan ("Shooter Antwerp didn't have premeditated plan"), journal (in The Netherlands) Trouw, 12 May 2006
- Far-right ties in Belgian murders, web news BBC, 12 May 2006
- Skinhead Rampage Highlights Belgium's Race Anxiety, newsmagazine Time, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Karel van Themsche's daughter Frieda's website - Biografie (web retrieval 27 May 2006 22:00)
- (French) Le racisme meurtrier du Vlaams Belang ("Racism murderer of Vlaams Belang") Citation 1: "Son père, Peter, est un militant de la première heure de l’ex-Vlaams Blok, crée en 1978 par des nationalistes flamands et d’anciens collabos." ("His father, Peter, is a militant of the first hour for the ex-Vlaams Blok, created in 1978 by Flemish nationalists and former collaborators.") - Citation 2: "Paul Beliën, idéologue du parti, assimilait sur son site Internet les personnes d’origine arabe « à des fauves assoiffés de sang, qui ont appris lors de leur fête annuelle à égorger le mouton ». Et appelait les Flamands à se débarrasser d’eux. Le titre de son pamphlet xénophobe ? « Donnez-nous des armes. » Hans a pris la sienne." ("Paul Beliën, [Vlaams Belang] party ideologist, on his web site assimilated the persons of Arab origin 'with bloodthirsty tawny-coloureds, who have learned from their yearly feast to cut the sheep's throat'. And called upon the Flemish to get rid of them. The title of his xenophobe pamphlet? ‘Give us weapons’. Hans took up his.") journal (in France) l'Humanité, 19 May 2006
- WW2 Axis and Foreign Volunteer Legion Military Awards & Postal History - Flemish Feldpost (Link underneath to Front Page allows accessing its Bibliography etc), R. Chavez, (web retrieval 27 May 2006)
- (Dutch) De memoires: ‘luctor et emergo’ ("The Memoirs: ‘luctor et emergo’"), page 57, W. Martens, publisher Lannoo Uitgeverij, 2006 ISBN 978-90-209-6520-9
- Critical Reflections on the Participative Nature of Blogs pages 15-16, Bart Cammaerts (London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Media and Communications), American University of Paris March 2008
- National Analytical Study on Racist Violence and Crime, page 11, Raxen Focal Point for Belgium, Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism. See also 70 steps plan (Belgium).
- journal De Morgen, 14 May 2006, page 8
- (Dutch) Dienstwapen inleveren is geen probleem ("Returning service gun is not a problem"): Some foresters disarm in 2008 (hence in 2006 still perceived armed), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 17 January 2008
- (Dutch) Personeelsleden van Agentschap voor Natuur en Bos mogen wapenstok bij hebben includes the weapons Flemish foresters had e.g. in 2006, Kluwer, 5 May 2009
- (Dutch) Filip Dewinter zegt wat u denkt - Veiligheidsmeeting ("Filip Dewinter says what you think - Security Meeting") This quoted web page shows the context of the more widely published phrase that immediately followed: "This feeling of insecurity does not relate only to fear for the unknown, but also to the simple fact that the risk of aggression or insults, of violence, happens to be larger solely because one is white, solely because one is Flemish, solely because one is European. Criminality and violence obtained a political, an ideological, or a religious character in quite some neighbourhoods of our cities. The hunt on all that is not Islamitic, not Arab and not foreign, was opened a while ago.", F. Dewinter, 11 April 2006
- Mouvement contre le racisme, l'antisémitisme et la xénophobie ASBL (MRAX), since 1966 the Belgian branch of the French NGO MRAP, see Yvonne Jospa, (French) Dictionnaire des femmes belges, XIXe et XXe siècles, É. Gubin, Lannoo Uitgeverij, 2006, ISBN 2-87386-434-6, ISBN 978-2-87386-434-7
- (Dutch) 45 procent vindt Vlaams Belang niet verantwoordelijk voor schietpartij ("45 percent thinks Vlaams Belang not responsible for shooting"), journal Het Laatste Nieuws
- (Dutch) Partijen vragen Raad van State dotatie Belang af te nemen ("Parties ask Council of State to withdraw [Vlaams] Belang dotation"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 19 May 2006
- (Dutch) "Wij hoeven steun van Vlaams Belang niet" (" "We don't need support from Vlaams Belang" "), web news VRT, 15 May 2006
- (Dutch) "Liefst geen affiche van Vlaams Belang" (" Preferably no poster from Vlaams Belang"), web news VRT, with relevant video clip from VRT, 'Het journaal' (19h) TV news, 17 May 2006
- (Dutch) 58% zegt: «Moorden hebben geen verband met Vlaams Belang» ("58% says: ‘Murders have no relation to Vlaams Belang’"), web site Het Laatste Nieuws, 'De Stemmenkampioen'
- Statement by Karel De Gucht in Canvas actuality talk program 'Morgen beter', 19 May 2006, quoted (Dutch) "Niet alleen de extreem-rechtse partij Vlaams Belang is verantwoordelijk voor het klimaat van racisme, ook de kiezers van die partij zijn medeverantwoordelijk." ("Not only the extreme right party Vlaams Belang is responsible for the climate of racism, also the voters of that party are responsible") on VRT in 'Het journaal' (19h) TV news, 19 May 2006
- (Dutch) Stille wake in Antwerpen ("Silent Wake at Antwerp"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 12 May 2006
- (Dutch) Samenlevingsproblemen los je niet op met feesten en slogans alleen ("Community problems do not get solved by only parties and slogans") - Function of G. Kamanayo in relevant time frame, non-profit organisation Kif Kif, 23 July 2007 (web retrieval 21 February 2010)
- (French) Un non bigarré au Belang ("A colourful No at the [Vlaams] Belang"), journal La Libre Belgique, 15 May 2006
- VRT, 'Het journaal' (19h) TV news, 17 May 2006
- (Dutch) Redder in nood Bart De Wever (N-VA) zoekt 'held' die zijn moeder redde ("Rescuer Bart De Wever (N-VA) seeks 'hero' who saved his mother"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 20 May 2006
- VRT, 'Het journaal' (19h) TV news, 16 May 2006
- (Dutch) "Aanpassing wapenwet sleept al jaren aan" ("Modification weapons law lingers on for years"), journal De Standaard, 13 May 2006
- (Dutch) "De zaak Hans Van Themsche" ("The Case of Hans Van Themsche") (book overview), G. Verwerft, publisher Standaard Uitgeverij, 10 April 2008
- (Dutch) Vanaf maandag geen wapens meer in Antwerpse etalages ("From Monday onwards no weapons in Antwerp shop windows any more"), journal De Morgen, 14 July 2007
- (Dutch) Wapenhandelaar in beroep tegen verbod op wapens in etalages ("Arms dealer in appeal against prohibition of weapons in shop windows"), journal De Morgen, 16 July 2007
- (Dutch) Gouverneur verwerpt beroep tegen verbod op wapens ("Governor rejects appeal against ban of weapons"), journal Het Nieuwsblad, 28 August 2007
- 'Antwerp Massacre: Turning the World into Hell', P. Beliën (see also this WP article), The Brussels Journal, 12 May 2006
- 'Terror in the park', Al Ahram Weekly, 18 May 2006, article by Khaled Diab on the political exchange of fire that took place in the wake of the shootings.
- Media technologies and democracy in an enlarged Europe (The intellectual work of the 2007 European media and communication doctoral Summer school) (Programme supported by the Socrates Erasmus IP project, the European Communication Research and Education Association, the University of Tartu and a consortium of 19 universities) chapter: '4. Case-study: Blogs, online forums, public spaces and the extreme right in North Belgium' (including '4.2.2. The murder of Oulematou Niangadou and Luna Drowart'), Bart Cammaerts, Tartu University Press 2007, ISSN 1736-3918 (print) ISBN 978-9949-11-744-4 (print) ISSN 1736-4752 (PDF) ISBN 978-9949-11-745-1 (PDF)