Council of Justice to investigate 2018 death at Belgian airport

Summary

Józef Chovanec died after a police intervention in Charleroi in 2018, while video footage of the event has only just appeared

Repercussions

Belgium’s High Council of Justice has opened an investigation into the Mons public prosecutor’s handling of the Jozef Chovanec case. Chovanec went into a coma and died following a police intervention at Charleroi Airport in February of 2018.

Last week Slovakia’s parliament demanded that the European Union investigate Belgium’s handling of the case, and Chovanec’s widow told VRT that she thinks the local justice system is involved in a cover up.

Video footage seen only last month reveals that Chovanec severely injured his head in the cell and received no medical intervention. The police put a blanket over his head and sat on him for more than 15 minutes. Police are seen laughing and joking, and one gives a Nazi salute.

Such a police intervention should never happen in the European Union, certainly not in the political and diplomatic heart of Europe

Witnesses report that Chovanec, 38, appeared confused upon boarding the plane back to his homeland at Charleroi Airport. He was removed from the plane and immediately pushed to the ground by several police officers, who took him to a police cell at the airport.

Emergency medical workers apparently also made disparaging remarks when giving Chovanec a sedative. He suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to the hospital unconscious, where he lay in a coma for three days before he died.

The case has raised many questions at home and in Slovakia, such as what was wrong with Chovanec, who had never had bouts of confusion before and was not under the influence of any substance; why the police were so aggressive during the intervention; and why the investigation into police and medical procedures is still ongoing 2.5 years later.

The video reveals police laughing as well as giving the sign of the horns and a Nazi salute during the intervention

Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon was also called on to respond to the case as he was the federal minister of interior affairs when the incident took place. Jambon had had a meeting with the Slovakian ambassador to Belgium following Chovanec’s death but says that he does not recall the meeting.

Slovak MEPs also penned a letter to Marc De Mesmaeker, commissioner-general of the federal police. “We are convinced that such a police intervention should never happen in the European Union,” reads the letter, “certainly not in the 21st century and certainly not in the political and diplomatic heart of Europe.”

Also last week, Flemish broadcaster VRT aired an interview with Chovanec’s widow, who is convinced that Belgium was trying to cover up her husband’s death. She can find no other explanation for why the investigation into police conduct and cause of death has carried on for 2.5 years.

The public prosecutor has now stated that nothing at all went wrong before the investigation has finished

- Lawyer Ann Van de Steen

“I’m pretty sure he died in the cell,” Henrieta Chovancova told VRT. “I don’t believe he died of a heart attack. I think he was suffocated by the police. The heart attack was just an excuse to cover everything up.”

The public prosecutor in Mons, reacting for the first time since the video came to light two weeks ago, released a press release on Friday saying that there was no evidence that Chovanec died in the police cell.

The statement minimalised the video, saying that it had to be placed in context, and that there was no plan at this point to charge any police officers with any crimes. The investigation is still ongoing, it confirmed.

Aalst city councillor and lawyer Ann Van de Steen  ©Lijst A

“It is the insane statement of the day,” responded Ann Van de Steen, the Aalst lawyer representing the Slovakian family. “The public prosecutor has now stated that nothing at all went wrong before the investigation has finished. Am I supposed to close the case then?”

The High Council of Justice acts as a watchdog committee for Belgium’s justice system. It also announced last week that it would be looking into the Chovanec case, the first time it has ever done so before an investigation is complete.

As for the Slovakian parliament’s demand to the EU, there is little chance that it will be satisfied, as the European Commission rarely gets involved in investigations at the national level. It is thought that the Slovak parliament wanted to make it clear, however, that it has no faith that justice will be served otherwise.