Jan Jambon, federal home affairs minister at the time of the death in police custody of Jozef Chovanec, was made aware of the incident days after it happened, according to the current minister Pieter De Crem.
De Crem, together with justice minister Koen Geens (both CD&V) was appearing before the joint home affairs and justice committee of the federal parliament, called at short notice to enquire into the death, which took place at Charleroi Airport in 2018.
The death of Chovanec came to light last week when video surfaced of the heavy-handed reaction by airport police when the man, a Slovakian national, became agitated and had to be restrained. Prior to his arrest, Chovanec had been ordered to leave the aircraft he had boarded after pushing a steward.
Members of the committee wanted to know, among other things, how it is possible nobody including senior police officers and politicians were unaware of what had gone on at Charleroi.
De Crem, appearing first, pointed out he had not been home affairs minister – in charge of the police – at the time of the incident, and in fact only took over in December 2018 when Jambon’s party N-VA quit the government of Charles Michel.
Since then, he went on, he had not been informed of the case, and had no knowledge of camera footage.
The arrest of Chovanec took place on 25 February 2018, and the federal police were informed the following day, De Crem said. His wife contacted the Slovakian embassy on 26 February after he was admitted to hospital. Chovanec died in hospital on 27 February.
And at around the same time, he said, Jambon had been brought up to speed.
“My predecessor had contact with the Slovak ambassador in 2018 during which the death of Mr Chovanec was discussed. My predecessor’s chief of staff also received a report from the protocol department of the foreign affairs ministry about their contacts with the ambassador.”
De Crem told the committee that Philippe Goffin (MR), minister for foreign affairs, had received the Slovakian ambassador in July 2018, who informed him in the course of their conversation that he (the ambassador) had already been in contact with Jambon and discussed Chovanec’s death. A report of the conversation was later passed to Jambon’s chief of staff.
Last week Jambon denied any knowledge of the matter, and his spokesperson posted on Twitter that Jambon “had never heard anything about the Charleroi incident until the reporting of the last few days”.
At the time of writing, the committee proceedings were continuing, with justice minister Koen Geens due to speak and answer questions.