Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

A poster of Mawda Shawri, a two-year-old Kurdish-Iraqi child who was killed by Belgian police in a car chase in 2018 (courtesy #Justice4Mawda)

Artists and activists in Europe are demanding justice for Mawda Shawri, a two-year-old Kurdish-Iraqi refugee who was killed by Belgian police during a high-speed police chase in 2018. Human rights activists held protests across Belgium yesterday, November 23, as a trial over the fatal shooting opened in the southern city of Mons. A collective of artist-activists has also launched an online campaign with the hashtag #justice4Mawada, including an online petition and an animated video that recreates the events of the fatal police chase in May of 2018 to raise public awareness.

The toddler was shot in the head during a police chase of a van transporting migrants from Europe to the United Kingdom. She died from her wounds in an ambulance. The slain child was among 30 people in the van, including her brother and parents.

The police officer on trial, whose identity hasn’t been revealed, is facing charges of involuntary homicide. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison. Belgian authorities claimed in court that the shooting was an accident and that the officer’s gun had been aimed at the van’s “front left tire.”

Mawda Shawri (courtesy #Justice4Mawda)

Two other men are facing charges for migrant trafficking. Respectively, they could face a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

In Brussels, protesters hung children’s clothing on a makeshift laundry line together banners reading “Justice for Mawda.”

“As citizens from around the world, we are devastated by Mawda’s violent and lonely death,” the online petition says. “We are horrified that the EU is planning to make it easier for member states to refuse to resettle refugees – this could drive more refugees in the hands of smugglers, risking more tragedies like Mawda’s.”

“Mawda’s death is not an accident,” the petition adds. “It’s the result of years of anti-immigration policies and a culture of dehumanizing and criminalizing migrants.”

The petition was signed by leading artists like Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Morello, and filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, among others.

The animation video, titled “This Is How It Happened”, was produced by Squarefish, an animation studio with offices in Brussels and Paris. The animation shows the officer’s hand pointing a gun at the refugee van from behind during the highway chase. Images of the wounded child being carried into an ambulance are overlayed with a text that accuses police of lying to the press by saying that the suspected traffickers “used [Mawda’s] head to break the window.” It also alleges the police lied to emergency services, saying the child “Just fell from the car.”

“Belgium’s immigration policy kills people, a violence hidden from the public,” another caption in the video says.

Frank Barat, a Brussels-based journalist and activist who attended the trial in Mons today told Hyperallergic in an email that the trial was temporarily paused for the lack of an interpreter who could properly speak Kurdish in the Sorani dialect, the language spoken by Mawda’s parents.

“The trial started with more humiliation for Mawda’s parents,” Barat wrote. “The parents said they could only understand 50% of what the interpreter was saying, so the trial was adjourned until they found a new interpreter. It took two hours for the trial to restart.”

Barat added that the police officer expressed remorse, saying, “If I had known they were kids inside the van, I would have never fired his gun.” The officer also claimed that the motorway was badly lit during the night of the chase, a claim that was later debunked by Belgium’s transportation authorities and testimonies by other policemen.

According to Barat, the officer fired his gun less than 90 seconds after joining the van’s chase. “Another police car that had been involved in the chase for 30 minutes never fired a gun,” he added.

Barat recounted a statement by Selma Benkhelifa, the attorney representing the Shawri family, who alleged that police had treated the parents inhumanely after killing their two-year-old child.

“During the first 24 hours of her detention, Mawda’s mother wore the same T-shirt stained with her daughter’s blood,” the attorney said in court. “One must dare to speak of inhuman and degrading treatment. We must dare to speak of racism,” she added, “Because if they were not migrants, they would never have been treated that way, and the van would have never been shot at.”

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...