The Belgian government has been urged to investigate the death of a man in police custody after an officer sat on his rib cage for 16 minutes and another apparently made a Nazi salute.
Jozef Chovanec, a 38-year old Slovakian citizen, was arrested at Charleroi airport in February 2018 after causing a disturbance while boarding a flight to Bratislava. Taken to a cell, he started banging his head against a wall, causing bleeding.
On Wednesday video images emerged showing how he was pinned down in the cell by six police officers. One officer sat on his rib cage for 16 minutes, according to Het Laatse Nieuws, which obtained the footage.
The officers laughed “exuberantly” while one danced and made a Nazi salute, according to a doctor’s report. A blanket was over Chovanec’s face for some time. Chovanec died in hospital the following day.
His wife, Henrieta Chovancova, has said the killing of George Floyd in the US in May was reminiscent of her husband’s death. “When [the police] saw the blood, they should have given him first aid. Instead they sat on him with so many people. He couldn’t breathe properly,” she said.
She fears the case is being covered up and has called for a new judge to be appointed.
A spokesperson for Charleroi’s public prosecutor, which has been investigating the case for two and half years, told Belgian media there had been “a delay” because of the coronavirus pandemic, but said all the officers involved had been interviewed.
A police source told the regional paper Sudpresse that the officer who appeared to make the Nazi salute would be dismissed.
An autopsy found Chovanec had not taken drugs or alcohol, and his family do not know the reason for his behaviour at the airport. He commuted between Slovakia and Belgium, where he ran an agency recruiting Slovakian workers to work on construction sites.
On Thursday the mayor of Charleroi, Paul Magnette, called on the interior minister, Pieter De Crem, to examine the case. “I am, like so many people, shocked by the images in the press,” tweeted Magnette, who is also leader of Belgium’s francophone Socialist party. “This behaviour is unacceptable. As for the federal police, under the authority of the minister of interior I am asking the latter to do everything to shed light on these acts.”