A recalcitrant passenger comes into custody. The police brutally calm him down. Four days later, Jozef Chovanec is pronounced dead.
BRUSSELS taz | As David Sassoli, the Italian chairman of the European Parliament, opened the session week in Brussels last Monday, this is done with an urgent appeal: “The truth must come to light,” demands Sassoli. And reports that many people had pointed out to him “the case of the Slovak citizen Jozef Chovanec”. He expressed his condolences to his survivors, acknowledged human rights as a “key value” of the EU and promised that the Parliament’s Justice Commission would put the Chovanec case on the agenda.
Not all EU parliamentarians will know the case. In Belgium, however, the unexplained death of Jozef Chovanec is causing waves.
On February 23, 2018, the Slovak citizen was lying on the cold asphalt of Charleroi airport. Five police officers fix him, others are ready. It is early evening, video recordings still show a streak of twilight on the horizon. Chovanec is 38 years old, married, has a young daughter and owns a company that places temporary workers from his home country on Belgian construction sites. Actually, Chovanec should take off straight away, in the direction of the Slovak capital Bratislava, where he regularly commutes. But they took him off the plane as soon as he sat down. A fellow traveler will later say that Chovanec appeared aggressive.
With his head against the wall
Others describe his behavior at the airport as confused. Ann Van de Steen, his wife Henrieta’s lawyer, reports that Jozef Chovanec suffered from mental health problems and needed medication because of a thyroid dysfunction. In a tense, stressed state, he accidentally left his jacket with boarding pass and passport hanging in the waiting area. From the start, he was treated as a riot at the airport and not like someone who needs help, she complains.
Jozef Chovanec did not get any help that night. He is putting her in a police cell, where his condition appears to be deteriorating. Black and white footage from a surveillance camera shows that at 4:24 a.m. he starts banging his head against the wall of his cell. He sinks to the floor, gets up again and nervously prances on the spot next to his cot. When the light comes on, he’s sitting on the bunk. You can now see that Chovanec’s white T-shirt is smeared with blood. Again he hits his head against the wall, his face is now covered in blood.
Shortly after four thirty, police officers enter his cell. Even with her plastic shield, it apparently takes some effort to get the strong man who is struggling under control. You fix his hands and feet with cable ties and press him onto the bed. According to the images from the surveillance camera, Jozef Chovanec seems calm at this point. When you push your body over the couch, it seems almost stiff. At a quarter to five in the morning, the police pull a shabby blue blanket over Chovanec and wrap it tightly around his head and torso. Then one of the officers sits on him with his full weight, four others support him and press Jozef Chovanec onto the couch. Only now does Chovanec begin to squirm under the blanket. Two other officers join in as reinforcements.
Violence in the cell, fun for the officers
While the one policeman is fixing Chovanec, other officers seem to be enjoying themselves. The video shows how someone grinning makes a devil sign with his index and little finger. The colleague who previously knelt on Chovanec laughs broadly. A woman officer with a blonde ponytail stands to attention, stretches her arm in the Hitler salute and indicates a stubby beard with two fingers above her lip. A police officer later justified this gesture by saying that Chovanec spoke German “or a language that is similar to it”, reminding the police officers of Germans in Louis de Funès films.
At 5:06 am you can see paramedics in yellow in the cell. The grip is loosened, Jozef Chovanec is injected with a sedative. Shortly afterwards, when it turns out that his heartbeat is gone, he is turned on his back, his bloody T-shirt is pulled up and he is reanimated. Chovanec is taken to a hospital in Charleroi. There, four days later, on February 27, 2018, his death was determined.
His widow, Henrieta Chovanec, suspects that her husband died in the cell at the airport. More than two years after the death of her husband at the end of August 2020, the widow decides to bring the recordings from the surveillance camera, which the authorities made available to her, to the public. She has pushed for a reconstruction of the case for too long, the question marks behind what concerns her are too big: Why did it take almost four hours after the arrest for a doctor to appear at Jozef Chovanec’s? Why did the latter issue a certificate enabling her to be arrested without a thorough examination of her husband? Why did the paramedics come so late and how could any of them say they were going to give Chovanec a dose and if you lost it it would be “not a big loss”?
Shock waves in Belgium
The video images trigger shock waves in Belgium. Every day the media come up with new details that, in addition to the violent circumstances of Jozef Chovanec’s death, also concern his treatment by the Belgian judiciary and politics.
The police report, for example, details how the man fiercely resisted his arrest at the airport. The processes in the cell, however, are described in far less detail. There was no mention that Chovanec’s head was wrapped in a blanket and that an officer sat on his chest for 16 minutes. A second report emerges that goes into more detail.
The public outrage leads to two resignations: first must André Desenfants, Vice-Chief of the Federal Police, take off his hat. He had complained that he had not been informed of the officers’ behavior. It is followed by the director of the airport police, Danny Elst. Also Jan Jambon, now Prime Minister of the Flemish Region and Minister of the Interior in 2018, is coming under pressure. At the end of August he let it be known that he was “never, not a word”, informed about the Chovanec case – only to admit a little later that he had met the Slovak ambassador Stanislav Vallo as early as 2018. Because he was very busy, he could not remember the conversation, Jambon defends himself.
Henrieta Chovanec’s lawyer Ann Van de Steen reported on the phone about the “horror” she felt when she first saw the video recordings. That they made them think of conditions in a war zone, that they were unworthy of Belgium and that they had put a damper on their belief in the rule of law.
“I hope that we will know what the cause of death was in early 2021”
For the responsible public prosecutor in Mons, it has not yet been proven that the violent police operation is the cause of Chovanec’s death. Ann Van de Steen comments: “It’s amazing. She is also outraged that the judicial investigation should be completed at the beginning of the year. “Thanks to all the attention, I now hope that we will know what the cause of death was by early 2021,” says Van de Steen.
In the future, a medical expert from Chovanec’s home country will also be involved in the investigation – on the initiative of the Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová. Belgium’s reputation in Slovakia is pretty bad.
For this reason, the high judicial council, which ensures the functioning of the Belgian judicial organs, has announced its own investigation. This has never been ordered in a case that has not yet been closed – an indication of the explosive power that the matter now has. Christian Denoyelle, the chairman, justified the procedure with “speculations” about an organized hushing up of the details. Belgium’s international reputation, already tarnished by judicial scandals, is at stake.
The Slovak government is also under pressure these weeks. At the beginning of September a Slovak court found the accused in the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak acquitted. The day before, the parliament in Bratislava demanded that the EU take up the matter. A Belgian would be responsible for this: Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, who happened to be Foreign Minister in February 2018.