Calls for new inquiry into Belgian police custody death

Image source, VRT
Image caption,
Video shows a police officer apparently giving a Nazi salute while Jozef Chovanec was held down in his cell

The wife of a Slovak man who died in Belgian police custody has called for a fresh inquiry after shocking images of his detention emerged.

Jozef Chovanec was arrested at Charleroi airport in 2018 after causing a disturbance on his flight.

While in custody, he began banging his head on the wall of his cell to the point of bleeding. A group of officers are later seen pinning him down.

Chovanec was taken to hospital, but fell into a coma and died the next day.

The images from the cell show several officers laughing during the incident, while another appears to give a Nazi salute. Another is filmed sitting on Chovanec's rib cage for 16 minutes.

His death has drawn parallels in Belgium with the case of George Floyd, who died in May after a police officer knelt on his neck during his arrest in the US.

'He couldn't breathe properly'

"I want to know what happened and why [the police] behaved that way," his wife, Henrieta, told Het Laatste Nieuws, the Belgian newspaper that obtained the footage.

Before his death in February 2018, Chovanec owned a company that recruited Slovakian construction workers for projects in Belgium, and he frequently commuted between the two countries for his business.

His family said they do not know the reason for his erratic behaviour during police custody, and an autopsy revealed he had not been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Something seemed to be going on with my husband, he wasn't feeling well, but the police ignored my husband all night," said Mrs Chovancova. "When they saw the blood, they should have given him first aid. Instead, they sat on him with so many people. He couldn't breathe properly."

Widespread revulsion

Two years after his death, a police investigation is continuing, and Mrs Chovancova has called for a new judge to be appointed.

A spokesperson for the Charleroi public prosecutor's office said all officers involved in the incident had been interviewed, but added that "due to the crisis surrounding Covid-19, there has been a delay".

In the meantime, a police spokesperson told the Sudinfo website that the officer pictured giving the salute would be dismissed from 20 August.

There has been widespread revulsion at the images among Belgian politicians.

Interior Minister Pieter de Crem told Belgian media the images were "extremely shocking" and what had happened was "obviously out of all proportion". It was up to the police inspectorate to decide what action to take towards the officers involved, he said.

A spokesman for the VSOA police union told Flemish broadcaster VRT "that Hitler salute and that dancing is utterly unacceptable and inappropriate", but the union did not know the case well enough to make accusations against the officers.

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