Jozef Chovanec was a Slovak national, arrested by the Belgian airport police at Brussels’ Charleroi Airport in February 2018. He was detained due to, allegedly, forcing his way onto a plane after being unable to produce his boarding pass. Chovanec’s wife, Henrieta Chovancova, released video footage showing him in his holding cell, repeatedly hitting his head against the door until covered in blood. Later, several police officers enter the cell and pin him down for 16 minutes.
During this time, one of the officers performs a Nazi salute while laughing with her colleagues. Near the end of the video, paramedics arrive at the cell while the police is still pinning Chovanec down, who appears unconscious. This element fed into the belief that the officers were trying to suffocate him. As the police leave the cell, the paramedics attempt to resuscitate Chovanec, before taking him away. The next day, Jozef Chovanec was reported as having died of cardiac arrest in hospital.
AMID THE GLOBAL MOVEMENT AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY
The investigation into the mistreatment and subsequent death of Jozef Chovanec will soon reach its third anniversary. The case regained widespread attention among Slovak social media users in June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the USA. Amid the global movement against police brutality, Henrieta Chovancova decided to release the cell footage of her husband while apprehended by the Belgian police. The aim was to highlight it as another case of unjustified police violence.
The new footage was accompanied by Chovancova’s frustration with the ongoing inquiry, which, in her view, was losing traction and was failing to shed light on the events and thus ensure accountability. In response, Slovak authorities re-emphasised the case internationally and have since tried to gain external support in speeding up the inquiry, although with limited success. Despite retaining doubts about the Belgian authorities’ handling of the case, Slovakia is now partaking in an international cooperative effort with Belgium to unearth the details of the incident.
THE DELAYED INQUIRY
Since 2018, the investigation into Chovanec’s death has been in the hands of Belgian prosecutors. Charleroi’s public prosecutor’s office has reported that all police officers involved in the incident were interviewed; however, further proceedings were claimed to be delayed due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Mons’ public prosecutor’s office stated that there was no plan to charge the officers with any crimes at the moment. In fact, at the present time, all officers are still in service.
Following the release of the full cell footage, Belgium’s director-general of federal police, André Desenfants, announced he would temporarily step down from his position. Desenfants described the incident as shocking. He further expressed his outrage at not being “made aware of facts of such seriousness”. A separate investigation by the Belgian’s police oversight body, Committee P, confirmed this affirmation. The investigation has concluded that several members of the airport police had seen the footage at the time of the incident, but had failed to notify a higher authority.
Around the same time, the lawyer of the police officer who performed the Nazi salute released a statement. The policewoman claimed the action was a humorous response to supposed accusatory remarks by Chovanec to the officers. The statement, however, did little to alleviate the outrage towards this particular moment in the video. On social media, the widespread conviction was that the use of a Nazi symbol by a Belgian officer was sufficient to classify the treatment of Chovanec as xenophobic.
CONTROVERSIES IN THE JOZEF CHOVANEC CASE
Despite these marginal developments, the handling of the inquiry thus far has been criticized. Henrieta Chovancova has been particularly vocal on her distrust of the Belgian prosecutors. She shared her view that the prosecutors, along with then-Interior Minister Jan Jambon, were involved in a cover-up of the incident, prioritized with protecting the police. Jan Jambon has publicly declared the situation as “inadmissible”, while stating his general respect for the job of the police. In addition, Chovancova stated her conviction that her husband died in his cell, at the hands of the police officers. According to her, the ruling of his death as a cardiac arrest was part of the cover-up.
Slovakia’s President, Zuzana Čaputová, has also spoken on the issue. She has labelled it a matter of police brutality, with the aggravating circumstance that it has not been properly investigated.
Since the airing of increased scepticism, Belgium’s High Council of Justice has opened an investigation into the Mons public prosecutor’s office, addressing the issues with its handling of the inquiry. However, it has since concluded there was no attempt by investigators to withhold information from the case.
A PLEA FOR EU INPUT
In September of 2020, Slovak MEPs sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli. The letter demanded that the Parliament helps bring to justice the perpetrators of Jozef Chovanec’s killing. In the letter, the MEPs stated:
“The European Parliament, as an institution defending human rights worldwide, must take a strong and unequivocal position on the inappropriate action by Belgian law enforcement authorities”.
The writing also highlighted the extremist nature of the police approach, as shown in the cell footage. It pointed out to the President how such actions directly conflict with EU values.
Additionally, the Slovak Parliament passed a resolution, urging its Government to request that EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders leads the investigation. It deemed the case entailed police brutality, and that Belgian prosecutors were dealing with it inadequately. Similarly to the letter sent by MEPs, the Parliament called for EU intervention, based on the belief that this would accelerate the inquiry. The objective was to provide a more thorough investigation than the one carried out since 2018. Reynders’ input was specifically requested as he was the Belgian Foreign Minister at the time of Chovanec’s death. He would have been in a position to establish a close cooperation with the Slovak Government.
David Sassoli made a symbolic call on Belgium to provide clarity on the case. However, EU representatives promptly declined the plea for direct intervention, on the grounds that the EU does not have authority to interfere in member states’ domestic affairs. In short, Slovak and Belgian authorities should solve the issue alone. Considering that the Slovak request for EU input centered precisely on the distrust towards Belgium’s handling of the investigation, this put Slovakia back to square one.
BELGIAN AND SLOVAK COOPERATION
Notwithstanding the setback to Slovakia’s hope for EU engagement, Belgian and Slovak authorities have renewed their willingness to cooperate. The Slovak Parliament has remained firm in its demand that its Belgian counterpart holds the culpable officers accountable. As the cooperation resumed in 2020, Belgium’s Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, expressed to Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič her intention to bring those responsible for Chovanec’s death to justice. Unfortunately, Alexander de Croo replaced her recently, and he has not yet spoken out on the matter.
Cooperation efforts will continue under Eurojust, the EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation. The first coordination meeting between then-Deputy Prosecutor General of Slovakia, Viera Kovacikova, and Belgian Prosecutor General, Ignacio de la Serna, set up the forthcoming partnership. Additionally, all mutual legal assistance will take place on Slovak territory.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
From the investigation, Slovakia seeks transparency and accountability surrounding Jozef Chovanec’s death. Meanwhile, both the Slovak and Belgian people anticipate that the concluding report will answer for the police brutality, as well as the suspected xenophobia and extremism, depicted in the video footage. This is not surprising, since the case regained momentum in the context of a global movement against police brutality. Its transparent execution will be significant in its contribution to inflamed public discourse on policing procedures and their ensuing violence.
The extent to which Belgium and Slovakia will successfully cooperate to bring the investigation to a just end will determine the future trajectory of similar cases; especially, cases which bring international scope to domestic affairs. This incident is not a singular police brutality case. It is, however, one of few which raises a domestic issue of this nature to the international level. The forthcoming cross-border examination of a national police force will reflect new boundaries for international input into domestic mechanisms. This will involve debate on the level of scrutiny that Slovakia can subject Belgium’s police to.
Finally, it is true the European Union has removed itself from the inquiry. However, Belgium and Slovakia’s cooperation will still be meaningful for the pillar of political partnership. If the investigation proceeds swiftly, it will demonstrate the significance of mutual EU membership. It may affirm that this membership is more enhanced than standard international cooperation between states.
- Considering the slow pace of investigation so far, will cooperation between Slovakia and Belgium be enough to accelerate it?
- Would EU intervention be necessary?
- Is it necessary that international authorities dissect the video footage and look into the suspected xenophobia/extremism hereby implied? Or should they stick to investigating police brutality as such?
- Is the classification of the case as police brutality enough to encompass the gravity of the mistreatment of Jozef Chovanec?
- How may this case set apart mutual EU membership from standard international cooperation between states?
Associated Press (2020). “Slovakia condemns ‘unacceptable’ Belgian police brutality against citizen.” Euronews, 21 August, 2020.
BBC News (2020). “Belgium custody death: ‘Shocked’ police chief steps aside.” BBC News, 21 August, 2020.
Ondriaš, Juraj (2020). “Slovakia external relations briefing: Incident with Belgium over the death of Jozef Chovanec.” China-CEE Institute, 32 (4), 4 November, 2020.