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BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - The Brussels criminal justice system needs an urgent clean-out.
With more than one million items of evidence from past crimes, including baseball bats, a severed human hand, crowbars, bullet-riddled car doors and a totem pole, the basement of the vast palace of justice in Brussels is running out of space.
Every year 40,000 new pieces of evidence related to crimes in the Brussels area arrive at the imposing 19th century landmark, with more items entering than exiting.
Evidence is placed in carefully marked boxes, but there is little obvious sense that the boxes themselves have been placed in any particular order.
"I am pleased to say that we never have any difficulty finding things," Luc Hennart, president of the Brussels court of first instance, told Reuters late on Thursday.
"The big problem that we have at the moment is the lack of space. Any time a bit of room is found, it is used up because there's just more and more and more."
Investigators, he said, bring in more objects than they need and keep them in the vaults for too long.
Items used as evidence in trials are kept until prosecutors decide they are no longer needed, at which point they are destroyed, sold or returned to their previous owners.
However, prosecutors can take a while to determine that an item can be released. In June, the justice officials burned 2.7 tonnes of narcotics which had amassed in the basement.
"It's like Ali Baba's cave," Viviane Waegeman, head clerk of the Brussels criminal court, said while walking through the stuffy, kilometer-long corridors.
As well as the more obvious tools of crime, there are carpets, heaters, bicycles, child seats for cars and a plaque for soccer club Standard Liege.
"There's just too much. Some 80 percent of the pieces are totally useless," said Waegeman's colleague Patrick Van Leeuw.
One reminder of the inefficiency that the system is dealing with is the hand of a 1994 murder victim which was severed from the body during an autopsy and put into an alcohol-filled jar.
The victim had scribbled a phone number on the back of his hand and it therefore became evidence, but the alcohol has since eaten away all traces of the number. Nevertheless the partially decomposed hand remains in storage.
Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Paul Casciato