Flemish PM and police chiefs quizzed over Mr Chovanec’s death after spell in police cell

Lawmakers today heard the accounts of former interior minister Jan Jambon (Flemish nationalist), the current Flemish PM, and police chiefs in connection with the death of the Slovak businessman Jozef Chovanec following an incident at Charleroi Airport over two years ago.  Mr Chovanec was incarcerated in a police cell before being rushed to hospital where he died three days later.

Mr Jambon told a joint session of the justice and home affairs select committee that he had never seen the images of Mr Chovanec’s treatment in a police cell until they emerged in recent days.  The images show a police officer sitting on the Slovak businessman, while another officer makes the Nazi salute. Mr Jambon insists the pictures never reached his office.  What they show is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘horrendous’ behaviour.

The Flemish PM noted everything looked very different two and a half years ago.  He pointed to the police report that was ‘very concise’.  Mr Jambon went through the events following the incident: the news of the death of a person in detention he received on 1 March, information on the meeting his officials had with the Slovak ambassador and his own meeting with the ambassador on 30 May. Mr Jambon argues that there are no warning signs.  The police report makes no mention of the dreadful events: “My office is accused of not intervening, but there was no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report. I do not distrust the police on principle.”

Mr Jambon insists there was no ground for further action: “Disciplinary measures are a matter for the police. As interior minister I could have intervened, but only using exceptional measures that require me to be in possession of information that would justify that action. I did not possess such information.”

Catherine De Bolle was the head of the federal police at the time of these events and now heads Europol.  She told lawmakers she wasn’t notified about what had happened and that that should have occurred.  “I never saw the pictures.  If I had I would have taken immediate action. I trust an internal enquiry will show why the existing procedure didn’t work and especially why nobody informed me.”

“The pictures hurt me.  I like so many of my colleagues joined the police to serve people and society.  Human rights, equality, integrity and respect for law and order are central to the way I led the police.”

Marc De Mesmaeker, the current head of the federal police, confirmed to lawmakers that he was aware of the facts on 26 February, even before Mr Chovanec died.  At the time he served as liaison officer between the police and the office of the interior minister, but stresses he wasn’t ‘involved’ as that was a responsibility of the interior minister’s office.

Mr De Mesmaeker rejects any idea that he did anything wrong as liaison officer or when he became police chief. He denied any prior knowledge of the pictures that emerged during the past two weeks and insisted that it now needed to be established who in the line of command had seen the pictures. 

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