Grime and Punishment: Belgium's Top Courthouse Is Falling Apart

By Valentina Pop Features Dow Jones Newswires

Here's a new one for you: Why did the Belgian police officer put on a hazmat suit?

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To visit the courthouse.

This August, when two police forensics experts showed up to retrieve a mobile phone from an evidence storage area at the Palais de Justice in Brussels, they were forced to don the sort of garb you'd expect to see at the site of a chemical spill.

The only joke here, if you can call it that, is the condition of the city's 134-year-old courthouse -- the very foundation of Belgian justice. It's a crumbling, mold-infested wreck.

Outside, the scaffolding installed decades ago to keep the building's cracked stonework from falling on passersby is so old that some of it needed its own scaffolding during repairs.

Inside, the ceilings are collapsing in places, the biblical statues in the marbled halls are coated in dust and some rooms are infested with fungus. The palace's vast atrium, darkened since the double-height main doors were shut for security, has the ambience of a tomb.

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Officials say palace renovations should be completed by 2028. But even that distant target inspires skepticism. "My trust in such reassurances, " says Luc Hennart, a federal judge who has worked in the building for more than 30 years, "is zero."

The palace's condition has become emblematic of Belgian dysfunction. Bickering between the country's French-speaking and Dutch-speaking halves has sucked power from the federal government, sapping its resources to maintain national monuments.

Completed in 1883 as the pet project of Belgium's King Leopold II, the palace is more than half the size of the U.S. Capitol and was Europe's largest building at the time. It looms over the city with a golden dome topping a massive Greek-Roman stone structure with marble staircases, columns and eight inner courtyards.

Inside its imposing walls, high-profile cases being tried include the 2016 Brussels terror attacks and an effort to establish the alleged paternity by retired King Albert II of an extramarital daughter. It's the central storage place for all police evidence gathered in Brussels, plus all legal documents such as birth certificates.

Walking through the palace's underground corridors in January, where some storage boxes were visibly wet, Mr. Hennart, the judge, discovered mold and called health inspectors.

Six months later, they showed up to conduct tests, then told him to wait until September for the results.

Infuriated, Mr. Hennart issued an order sealing the archives, risking trial delays. His one exception was allowing police to snag the cellphone, so long as they wore hazmat suits.

"As long as there is no real answer, we have to block the system -- go on strike," he said.

Belgium's Buildings Agency, which oversees palace maintenance, says early test results indicate the fungus isn't dangerous to humans. The agency says it will work out in the coming weeks when and how it will dry and salvage the objects and documents. Mr. Hennart says he's keeping the catacombs closed until work starts.

"I am but a tiny wheel in the machinery," he says, "but I am at war."

When the palace first opened its towering bronze doors, flooding sunlight into its cathedral-like atrium, "the instant reaction at the time was that it was going to be costly to maintain," says Johan Vanderborght, the buildings agency's spokesman. He says repairs today are slowed by cost, regulations and the palace's landmark status.

In the 1980s, when stones started falling from the facade, overseers wrapped its upper levels in scaffolding. It soon became clear the work would take years, so officials decided to buy the scaffolding, rather than rent it.

In 2003, workers finally removed some scaffolding to reveal the dome, regilded at a cost of roughly $3.5 million.

In 2010, the scaffolding needed repairs and soon had its own scaffolding. Two years later, the government decided to buy a separate section of rented scaffolding enveloping the building's block-long main entrance. The steel skeleton is needed because stonework behind it hasn't been maintained, creating a public danger, the Buildings Agency says.

In 2011, officials staged an architectural competition seeking ideas to repurpose the palace for commercial or cultural uses. Proposals included one suggesting the lower floors be replaced with a modernist cube.

No investors emerged. Last year, the government declared the justice system would remain sole inhabitant of the palace and promised to restore its original grandeur.

The aging building has also defied efforts to modernize its security. In 2009, five detainees escaped with help from armed accomplices who had entered undetected. In 2013, two men were convicted of attempting to destroy evidence the year before by starting a fire that took several hours to extinguish and caused more than $200,000 in damage.

Filip Heyndrickx, an engineer overseeing security improvements, says he must contend with the palace's 80 exits and miles of corridors, which weren't conceived for high-security trials. Complicating work are some 2,000 staffers, judges, visitors and witnesses using the building daily.

"It's difficult to keep criminal justice in the building," Mr. Heyndrickx says, "and restore the building exactly the way it was designed."

His team over recent years has modernized some holding cells, unblocked fire escapes, added video surveillance and installed metal detectors at two entrances. The rest are being secured or sealed.

He says plans to move archives to drier, safer locations have been discussed for decades but documents and evidence remain in the damp recesses.

Sheets of wood cover holes engineers made last year to check the foundation's stability following underground subsidence that damaged sewer pipes.

"The smell was pestilential and there were millions of flies," says Mr. Hennart.

One upside of the urban archaeology was discovery of original building plans signed by its architect, long believed lost.

Mr. Hennart, his mood as soggy as his underground archives, is unimpressed: "The only thing missing is mummies."

Write to Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 31, 2017 13:07 ET (17:07 GMT)