Fatal Charleroi airport arrest weighs on Belgian authorities

File photo. Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok speaks during his joint press conference with Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade office in Budapest, Hungary, 2 June 2020. [Zoltan Balogh/EPA/EFE]

The controversial arrest of a Slovak man at the Charleroi airport in February 2018, which resulted in his death, has come back to haunt the Belgian authorities after fresh video footage recently emerged, prompting Slovakia to voice concern and demand an investigation.

High-ranking Belgian officials became aware of the fatal arrest of Jozef Chovanec at Charleroi only days after it happened, a Belgian foreign affairs spokesperson confirmed on Monday (24 August).

The Slovak Embassy contacted Belgian officials via an official letter dated 26 February 2018, asking for explanations of the circumstances surrounding the death of the 38-year-old Chovanec in police custody at Charleroi Airport.

When the letter was sent, Chovanec was already brain dead in the hospital, following heavy-handed police intervention in an airport cell, where one policewoman can be seen doing a Nazi salute in recently released footage of the arrest.

The release of footage of the arrest last week sparked widespread outrage, dragging the affair back into the spotlight and leading to two top-level resignations in the Belgian federal police.

Outrage in Belgium after video reveals George Floyd-style police savagery

Belgians are shocked after TV channels on Wednesday (19 August) aired a videotape showing how the police treated a Slovak citizen at the Charleroi airport, in footage that echoes the savagery to which George Floyd fell victim in the US.

Belgian Foreign Affairs spokesperson Karl Lagatie said on Monday the federal public service had received the letter from the Slovak Embassy in 2018, confirming that the affair had reached the highest levels of government in Belgium three days after Chovanec’s death.

“Following the muscular arrest by your police officers, Mr Chovanec was transferred, gravely injured, to the Marie Curie hospital,” read the 2018 Slovak letter, obtained by De Morgen. “The Slovak Republic is closely following the evolution of this regrettable incident.”

Two years later, Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivan Korčok reacted to the fresh video footage at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Bratislava on 21 August.

“These practices are unacceptable and have no place in a democratic society”, he said, confirming that Slovakia had sent a diplomatic note via its embassy in Belgium immediately after the video was made public.

According to the minister, the note said: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken note of information by the Belgian media with great concern. They [media reports] show, among other things, inadequate and completely unacceptable police brutality and inappropriate conduct of officials against a citizen of the Slovak Republic“.

In the note, Slovakia requested that the Belgian authorities thoroughly investigate the conduct of the police. “We have exceptionally good relations with Belgium, but we also have a high number of citizens who work and study there. From our point of view, the conduct of the Belgian authorities has been shocking“.

Korčok also welcomed the resignation of the high-ranking representative of Belgian federal police as a “good sign”, and thanked Belgian media for their reporting, which he said shows the important role the media play in a democratic society.

In Slovakia, the local press reported about the shocking video but made an effort not to blow it out of proportion. The Speaker of the Parliament, Boris Kollár from the right-wing We are family, was less diplomatic and said the video shows a “murder” of a Slovak citizen.

“My feeling is they wanted to sweep it under the rug“, Kollár said, referring to Belgian authorities. He also said he was sorry there was not more of a public upheaval, such as after the death of George Floyd in the USA.

“Because white life also matters,” Kollár said. “If this had happened to a Roma, we would have a march on our hands,“ he added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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