Fatal Charleroi arrest: widow accuses Belgian officials of 'cover up'

Fatal Charleroi arrest: widow accuses Belgian officials of 'cover up'
Still from CCTV footage originally obtained by Het Laatste Nieuws

The widow of a Slovak man who died following a controversial arrest in Belgium has accused top justice and government officials of attempting to cover up and bury her husband's death.

In an interview with Flemish public broadcaster VRT, Henrieta Chovancova said that she did not believe the official account by authorities of the causes leading to the death of her husband Jozef Chovanec in 2018.

Official reports of Chovanec's death attest that he died of a heart attack in the hospital, where he was taken following a hard-handed police intervention in a cell in Charleroi Airport where he was detained.

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"I'm pretty sure he died in the cell, he did not die of a heart attack, I don't believe that," Chovancova said in the interview. "I believe he was suffocated by police, the heart attack was just an excuse to cover everything up."

Chovanec's 2018 death has given way to a brewing political scandal after Chovancova decided to release footage showing several officers roughly restraining the man and one female police officer giving a Nazi salute.

In the interview, Chovancova said she had "no choice" but to release the footage, as she felt that the affair was being buried to "protect someone," as she said there was no tangible progress more than two years after her husband's death.

"I didn't have any other choice," she said. "I'm pretty sure the judge (...) must cover for someone because, otherwise, I don't understand why, in the last two years and a half, she has done nothing about it all."

Fighting back emotion, Chovancova said that the judge tasked with investigating her husband's death "knew about the images," in which one police officer can also be seen kneeling on Chovanec's back for several minutes, even though his hands and feet are tied and he does not appear to physically resist the arrest.

The outrage caused by the footage spread beyond Belgium's borders and has seen two high-ranking officers in Belgium's federal police and landed the Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon, then at the helm of the federal interior minister, in hot water.

[caption id="attachment_129606" align="alignnone" width="660"] Marc De Mesmaeker, commissioner-general of the federal police (left) and Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon, who was interior minister at the time of Chovanec 's death in 2018. © Belga / Benoît Doppagne[/caption]

While Jambon initially denied having had any knowledge of the death, his successor Pieter De Crem affirmed Jambon was in the know.

Further reports have also shown that top foreign affairs officials were aware of the deadly arrest early on, after it became known that the ministry had been contacted by the Slovak embassy only three days after Chovanec's death.

The case has landed Jambon and members of the police before a parliamentary justice committee in hearings scheduled only days after the case gained international media attention.

'Nothing can bring him back'

After first claiming in a televised interview that he knew nothing about the case, in a later press conference, he admitted he had had a "short follow-up meeting," with the Slovakian ambassador in Belgium, VRT reports.

But, according to the broadcaster, Jambon said that his recollection of the meeting was patchy because it had happened a day before a terror attack in Liège.

During the hearings on Tuesday, Jambon was pushed for answers by lawmakers, with a leading opposition MP telling him he was "not credible," echoing remarks by Chovancova during her interview.

"How can you trust this kind of person?" Chovancova said of Jambon. "First he says something and the next time something different so, from that, you can see that someone is not telling the truth."

She said that it was "difficult" to see the footage and to know that it had been seen "all over the world."

"For me it's difficult as well (...), you don't want to watch this kind of images, not all over the world, especially in every television, in every press [report]," she said. "But if you haven't got any other choice..."

"Nothing can bring him back. But at least maybe someone else is going to be saved from these beasts, maybe it's gonna help someone else."

On Wednesday, further reports on the case showed that two different police reports were issued on the arrest, including one which said footage of the arrest had been transferred to public prosecutor's offices in Charleroi.

News of the second police report reaching prosecutors suggests that they were aware of the existence of the footage at most one day after the man's death, although it remains unclear whether they decided to watch it, and if they did, whether they notified higher-ranking officials of it.

Chovancova's push to bring the affair back to light has also coincided with news that thousands of police officers are active in a Facebook group in which they incite hate and encourage violence towards people with an immigration background.

While news of the Facebook group pile further pressure on Belgian police, who have been increasingly hit by accusations of racially biased and aggressive policing, the chief of Belgium's federal police has given no indications that there would be any consequences for the officers involved.

Grilled by MPs on Tuesday, he resorted saying they should "stop it or get lost" and said recruitment of police officers would improve in the future.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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