Much higher fines and tougher prison sentences for animal abusers in Flanders (Belgium)
Brussels, 25 August. 'With such a substantial increase in the penalties for animal cruelty, Flanders is significantly making up for lost time': GAIA’s President Michel Vandenbosch welcomed the Flemish government's decision at the initiative of the Minister of Animal Welfare, Ben Weyts, who announced the measures. GAIA has also insisted on this. Minister Weyts announced much stricter punishments for citizens and companies who mistreat or neglect animals. Animal abusers can be imprisoned for up to 5 years or even 10 years in case of repeat offenders. 'The Minister of Animal Welfare could hardly send an even stronger signal to the judicial authorities and to society as a whole that animal abuse must not be taken lightly', emphasises Michel Vandenbosch. The Flemish government had previously adopted the minister's initiative. The Flemish parliament still has to approve the bill before the stricter penalties can actually become law. 'Hopefully, judges will translate these very strong legal measures into appropriate sentences once they’ll come into effect,’
GAIA is also satisfied that the Flemish government, on the initiative of Minister Weyts, is responding to the wishes of the vast majority of Flemings (7 out of 10), who consider the current penalties under the Animal Welfare Act to be too light. Currently, people who mistreat or neglect an animal risk a fine of up to €16,000 or 1 to 6 months imprisonment - the latter since 1986 - for a first offence, or up to €100,000 fine and 18 months imprisonment for repeated and severe mistreatment or neglect within a period of 3 years.
A recent survey carried out by IPSOS in June 2021 shows that nearly a quarter of the Flemish people want animal abusers to be sentenced to 5 years or more. Only 2% think that animal abusers do not deserve a prison sentence. The survey using a representative sample among 795 Flemish people over the age of 18, was commissioned by GAIA. According to that same survey, they consider animal abuse much worse than desecration, public indecency, slander and defamation, spraying graffiti where it is not allowed, and computer fraud. The latter crime is punishable by 5 years in prison. In this list of crimes, animal neglect is in the top 3 ranked from severest to least severe. 83% of the Flemish people think that prison sentences are also necessary for those who neglect animals.
If the government's intention becomes law, serious abuse or neglect will be punishable starting with the first offence by a fine of up to €800,000 (x50) and imprisonment for up to 5 years (x20). A serious investigation can then be launched immediately. Repeat offenders risk a fine of up to €1,600,000 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years Important: for the first time, it will be possible to immediately arrest animal abusers in pre-trial detention, Minister Weyts also announced. Currently, the police cannot even take first-time offenders into custody because the maximum sentence for a first offence is too low. Many repeat offenders escape their harsher sentence because investigations and court proceedings often take longer than three years. In practice, this is not enough to dissuade and punish real animal abusers, the Minister of Animal Welfare clarified.
Judges are also given the option to close down companies for a longer period of time or even permanently. The definition of 'repeat offender' is also broadened: in the past, several offences had to be committed within a period of three years in order to be considered a repeat offender. This period is extended to five years. So, in practice, the real animal abusers are more likely to receive the harshest punishments. Judges will be able to close down companies that cruelly abuse animals for a period of five years or even permanently, irrespective of whether they are repeat offenders or not.
Citizens can be banned from keeping animals for good or for a period of 5 years. The police cannot even take first-time offenders into custody because the maximum sentence for a first offence is too low. Many repeat offenders escape their harsher sentence because investigations and court proceedings often take longer than three years. In practice, this is not enough to dissuade and punish real animal abusers. Ben Weyts: 'This is the moment when we say in Flanders: those who brutally treat animals will pay a real price.'
Animal Welfare Fund
In Flanders, the proceeds of the increased fines go to the Animal Welfare Fund, which is used, among other things, for the proper care of confiscated animals, awareness campaigns, and scientific research. For example, the money from animal abusers is used to improve animal welfare.
'We are working on a deterrent policy', says Animal Welfare Minister Ben Weyts, 'In the past, there were not even effective prison sentences for animal abusers. So, a few years ago, we ensured that an offender could effectively go to prison if they continued to mistreat or neglect animals. Now we are taking a big next step with a clear message: in Flanders, we no longer accept animal abuse or cruelty. Those who don’t want to listen will feel the consequences. We have significantly increased the capacity of the Animal Welfare Inspectorate and are expanding it even further. Each police district and each public prosecutor's office now has a specific person responsible for animal welfare. ‘Considerable punishments for animal abusers who really deserve it: I hope the message also gets through to the judges so that no animal abuser can go unpunished for cruelty and that real justice will be done for their victims,’concludes Michel Vandenbosch.
Note: since 2014 each government of the three regions in Belgium (Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia) has a Minister of Animal Welfare.