BRUSSELS, Belgium — Belgian authorities said Saturday they plan to separate prisoners deemed at risk of converting others to Islamist extremism as fears mount that prisons are serving as jihadist breeding grounds.
Justice Minister Koen Geens told Belgian media that such prisoners will be locked up by the end of the year in special prison sections created in the cities of Ittre and Bruges.
There will be 26 places for these prisoners in Ittre and 16 in Bruges, the newspaper Le Soir reported, citing Geens.
“Those who are incorrigible and therefore could tempt others to become radical like them… we will isolate them,” Geens told RTL television’s afternoon news bulletin.
He told Le Soir that these prisoners will not be locked in high security cells, which he said will be reserved for inmates deemed to have been plotting to carry out actual terrorist attacks.
The prisons will also recruit psycho-social workers and specialized Muslim staff to try to reeducate prisoners who are already radicalized or on the path of radicalization, Geens told RTL.
EU anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove, a Belgian, warned in January that it was better to try to rehabilitate jihadists, including those returning to Europe from Syria and Iraq, than to jail them.
“We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalization,” de Kerchove told AFP.
Omar El-Hussein, who was shot dead by police after killing two people in a shooting spree in Denmark last month, was thought to have been radicalized behind bars.
Two of the gunmen who terrorized Paris in January — Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who massacred 12 people in an attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and Amedy Coulibaly, the Islamist who killed four hostages at a Jewish supermarket — were both believed to be have been radicalized in prison.
Both Mohamed Merah, the al-Qaeda militant who shot dead seven people in a series of 2012 attacks, and Mehdi Nemmouche, last year’s Brussels Jewish museum killer, also turned to radical Islam in jail.
Belgian authorities said in January they had broken up a major Islamist cell that was planning to kill police officers in public places following a series of terror raids in which two suspected jihadists were killed.
Belgium is the EU country with the largest cohort of jihadists travelling to Iraq and Syria relative to its population, experts say, estimating their numbers at 300 to 400 in a country of only 11 million people.