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Belgian policeman on trial over Kurdish toddler's death

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Mons (Belgium) (AFP)

A toddler's clothes were hung before the court in the Belgian city of Mons on Monday in protest against what activists say is a "dehumanising" anti-immigration policy that cost a two-year-old her life.

Inside, a police officer went on trial for firing the shot that killed Mawda, one of two dozen Iraqi Kurdish migrants packed into a van in an attempt to reach Britain from France that ended in tragedy in May 2018.

But, for refugees' rights groups supporting her grieving parents, Europe's "criminalisation" of undocumented immigration is in the dock alongside him.

The hearing was suspended shortly after it began while the court sorted out some translation problems. Outside, a handful of protesters cried out: "Justice for Mawda."

During the investigation, the 48-year-old officer, not yet publicly named in court, said he had intended to shoot out a tyre to halt the suspect vehicle during a high-speed chase, but his car swerved violently and the bullet went astray.

He is charged with "involuntary homicide". But lawyers acting for Mawda's parents argue this should be increased to reflect a deliberate killing.

"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," lawyer Selma Benkhelifa said.

The tragedy caused a scandal in Belgium and became a symbol of the dangers that migrants still face even after they have left often war-torn homelands to travel across the European union.

The officer who fired the fatal shot is a father-of-two with eight years' experience in the police.

He was appearing in court alongside the driver of the van and the alleged people smuggler, both Iraqi Kurds.

The officer does not deny he drew and fired his gun to halt the fleeing vehicle, but insists he did not know migrants were inside.

He says he felt "wiped out" when he discovered little Mawda had received a fatal head wound as she crouched with her parents behind the driver.

"It's a horror to carry the image of someone responsible for the death of a child," his lawyer Laurent Kennes told AFP.

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

Mawda's parents, who left Iraq in 2015 and intended to head to Britain, ended up settling in Belgium after her death after they were granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

- Celebrity support -

The parents were represented at the two-day hearing by three lawyers and with the backing of a citizen activist group that has mobilised international celebrity support.

Rights activists in Belgium argue that deaths are made more likely by what they see as the "dehumanisation" of refugees and the "criminalisation" of migration.

The parents' team were seeking to bring police tactics and cooperation between French and Belgian services into question.

On the night of May 16, 2018, when the migrants' van set off from Grande-Synthe in northern France, French investigators placed a GPS tracker on board.

But the Belgian police did not know it was already under surveillance when they tried to intercept the traffickers on a motorway south of Brussels.

The police officer could face five years in jail for involuntary homicide. The Kurdish defendants are charged with dangerous driving, aggravated by the death.

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