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Belgian petition to remove statues of colonial king gathers pace amid George Floyd protests

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Belgian petition to remove statues of colonial king gathers pace amid George Floyd protests
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A petition in Belgium is calling for the country to remove all statues of the former King Leopold II who is blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during colonial rule.

The movement is gaining traction as Europe grapples with its own race issues alongside the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA.

Leopold II is blamed for the genocide of 10 million people in the former colony of the Belgian Congo.

An online petition to remove them is regularly surpassing its signature targets and will run until Congolese independence day on June 30th.

"For the majority of Belgians, he's known as the 'King who built the country', but Belgium was constructed in large part by money which was stolen from the people of the Congo," explains Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, president of BAMKO, an anti-racism NGO.

Anti-racism organisations also call for financial reparations to be paid to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, as Belgian Congo, suffered under bloody rule from Brussels between 1908 and 1960.

On top of the murders of millions, Leopold II's troops favoured vicious punishments like cutting off hands for anything they deemed a crime.

In the city of Ghent, a Leopold bust has been defaced with the final words of Black Lives Matter figurehead George Floyd - "Please, I can't Breathe".

Streets and tram stops all over Belgium are named after the former king.

Far-right Flemish nationalists say acknowledging and confronting the atrocities of Leopold II is important.

"This is part of the history of Belgium," says Wouter Vermeersch (Vlaams Belang)

"We are anti-royalist and anti-monarchists but we are not a people who want to tear down statues, change street names and erase history or cultural heritage."

In June 2018 Belgium agreed to allow a square in Brussels to be named after the Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba.

Later the same year, Belgium's colonial museum rebranded to try to wash away its racist reputation.

The petition to remove the statues of King Leopold II and to give reparations to the Democratic Republic of Congo have all come back into sharper focus due to the Black Lives Matter protests taking hold in the United States.

But in Belgium, they're not only calling for a reckoning with the crimes of the past they also want the country to deal with the institutional racism of the present.

To that end, demonstrations are planned in the country over the coming weeks.