Belgian appeal court throws out French arrest warrant for imam

By Juliette Jabkhiro and Layli Foroudi

PARIS (Reuters) -A Belgian appeal court on Tuesday upheld a ruling dismissing a European arrest warrant issued for a French-born Moroccan imam that Paris wants to deport over alleged hateful remarks.

France's interior ministry sought in July to deport the preacher, Hassan Iquioussen, for "inciting hate, discrimination and violence", notably against women and the Jewish community. Iquioussen later left for Belgium.

"The facts on which this arrest warrant is based do not constitute an offence under Belgian law," a spokesperson for the Mons appeal court said. "It is not valid, so we will not execute it."

The Mons court upheld a ruling by a lower Belgian court that dismissed the warrant, which was issued by French authorities who planned to deport him to Morocco.

Iquioussen's lawyers celebrated the ruling. "There is no offence in Belgium, and we consider there is none in France either," lawyer Lucie Simon said.

Iquioussen's lawyer and rights groups have acknowledged he made "backward" comments but argue that he has never been prosecuted on such grounds.

Some rights groups say the case is part of a wider crackdown on France's Muslim minority.

He successfully challenged his initial deportation order, with a Paris administrative court ruling his deportation to Morocco would be "a serious and manifestly disproportionate interference with his right to lead a normal private and family life".

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin challenged the ruling and later in August the Conseil d'Etat, which acts as the supreme court for administrative justice in France, ruled that the deportation order was justified. Iquioussen left for Belgium in the wake of that decision.

France's Human Rights League, a non-governmental organisation, said the Conseil d'Etat had been politically influenced.

France's interior ministry said the Conseil d'Etat had ruled based on the law and declined to comment on the Belgian appeal court's ruling.

The Conseil d’Etat did not respond to two requests for comment and declined to comment on Tuesday's ruling.

While he prevailed in Belgium court, the Belgian ruling will not impact French law. Four immigration lawyers and four administrative judges expressed concern that the Conseil d'Etat's decision might create a legal precedent that reduces the rights of immigrants in France.

One of those judges, Maguy Fullana, who is also a representative for an administrative magistrates' union, said that the Conseil d'Etat's ruling could influence how judges balance public order disruption with the right to a private life.

"If there are other cases of imam deportation, it will be difficult to ignore the Conseil d'Etat ruling," she said.

(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro and Layli Foroudi; Editing by Richard Lough, William Maclean and Lisa Shumaker)