BRUSSELS — Belgium’s justice minister resigned on Friday over what he described as a “monumental error” after it was discovered that Tunisia was seeking the extradition last year of an Islamic extremist who shot dead two Swedes and wounded a third this week.
Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said that he and his services had been searching for details to understand how Abdesalem Lassoued had disappeared off the map two years ago after being denied asylum and ordered by Belgian authorities to be deported to Tunisia.
On Monday night, Lassoued gunned down two Swedish men and wounded a third with a semiautomatic rifle. The attack forced the lockdown of more than 35,000 people in a soccer stadium where they had gathered to watch Belgium play Sweden.
In a video posted online, he claimed to be inspired by the Islamic State group. Police shot him dead on Tuesday morning in a Brussels cafe.
“This morning at nine o’clock, I remarked the following elements: On Aug. 15, 2022, there was an extradition demand by Tunisia for this man,” Van Quickenborne told reporters on Friday evening.
“This demand was transmitted on Sept. 1, as it should have been, by the justice expert at the Brussels prosecutor’s office. The magistrate in charge did not follow up on this extradition demand and the dossier was not acted upon,” he said.
“It’s an individual error. A monumental error. An unacceptable error. An error with dramatic consequences,” Van Quickenborne said in announcing that he had submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
“Even though it’s about the work of an individual and independent magistrate, I must, despite this, assume all the political responsibility for this unacceptable error,” the minister said.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, De Croo said he took note of Van Quickenborne’s resignation and offered “respect for his courage.” The prime minister called a meeting of senior ministers and top security officials for Saturday to shed more light on the failure.
The error is yet another indictment of Belgium’s justice system, although this time it had deadly consequences. Van Quickenborne has been living under police protection due to threats against his life. Judges and senior police officers routinely complain of staffing shortages and heavy caseloads.
Lassoued had applied for asylum in Belgium in November 2019. He was known to police and had been suspected of involvement of human trafficking, living illegally in Belgium and of being a risk to state security.
Information provided to the Belgian authorities by an unidentified foreign government suggested that the man had been radicalized and intended to travel abroad to fight in a holy war. But the Belgian authorities were not able to establish this, so he was never listed as dangerous.
He was denied asylum in October 2020, and ordered to be extradited in 2021, but the authorities did not do so because they could not find an address for him. After Monday night’s shooting, the place where he was living was found within hours.
The attack comes amid heightened global tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas. France’s anti-terror prosecutor said Tuesday that a suspected Islamic extremist declared allegiance to the Islamic State group before fatally stabbing a teacher at a French school attack last week.
However, Belgian prosecutors said nothing suggests that Monday’s attack was linked to what is happening in Israel and Gaza.