Court had images of the Chovanec case, but did not raise the alarm

01 september 2020

14:57

Crucial information about the death of the Slovakian Jozef Chovanec has remained at a lower level with the police and the judiciary. As a result, the then police top and minister Jan Jambon said he did not know enough to intervene firmly.

According to the key players at the time, three major mistakes explain the lack of action after the death of Jozef Chovanec after the brutal police crackdown in February 2018. That is the conclusion after the passage in parliament of the then Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon (N-VA), the current police chief Mark De Mesmaeker and his predecessor Catherine De Bolle.

First, a police report barely mentioned what had happened in a police cell at Charleroi Airport. The then police chief was also never made aware of the incident, and the court did not share any information with the bosses of the agents involved. This is strange, because in itself the obligation to do so applies as soon as the investigating judge or investigators have indications that possible misconduct or criminal offenses are involved.

Catherine De Bolle was the head of the federal police at the time of the events in February 2018.
©EPA

Although two separate police reports did not report that an agent delivered the Hitler salute during her colleagues’ struggle with Chovanec, the Charleroi prosecutor’s office was already in possession of the images shortly after the fact. This emerged from the hearing and from a second, more extensive police report that Het Laatste Nieuws was able to view on Tuesday.

The second report followed an hour after the first. It was prepared by three aviation police officers, including two who were involved in the events in the cell. Like the former, that document makes no mention of the most extreme events. Jambon – who did not receive the second report, his cabinet reported Tuesday evening – referred to the first report in the hearing, to point out the big difference from the images that surfaced in the media last month. As a result, the police summit in Brussels and the Minister of the Interior were not aware of the true situation at the time. And it explains why they haven’t done anything.

Jambon said he only saw the images of the police brutality in August, after Het Laatste Nieuws released them. ‘What I see in those images is inadmissible, inexplicable and terrible. I trusted the police report because I have no built-in mistrust of the police. ‘

Marc De Mesmaeker, Chief of the Federal Police.
©Photo News

The then police chief said he knew even less about the case than Jambon. “I should have known about the facts, but I was never informed about it,” said Catherine De Bolle, now the top woman of the European police service Europol. ‘I have not seen the images either. Otherwise I would of course have taken action. ‘

Her successor Marc De Mesmaeker knew about the incident. He was a liaison officer between the police and the Interior Cabinet in 2018. But he could not estimate the cause either because he did not get to see the images. ‘I can look the Chovanec family straight in the eye. I think I’ve done my job and even more than that. ‘

Disciplinary investigation

“I’m asking you where the flashing light should have gone,” Jambon threw at the MPs. He noted that no alarm bells have gone off on the basis of the report, not in the media or in parliament. The Slovak ambassador with whom Jambon spoke – which he did not remember at first – also gave no new information about the police brutality. Jambon explained that for those reasons he could not initiate a disciplinary investigation. That can only emerge as exceptional facts.

De Bolle and De Mesmaeker argued that the initiation of a disciplinary investigation against the agents involved was the competence of the administrative police, the umbrella organization above the road, rail, shipping and aviation police. The then director-general of the general directorate of the administrative police, André Desenfants, meanwhile voluntarily stepped aside. Desenfants has already made it clear that he has not been informed of the incident in Charleroi either, and therefore does not intervene.

The suggestion from the police top is that the information flow got stuck in the lower echelon. According to De Mesmaeker, despite the applicable instructions, the incident was never reported to the operations directorate of the administrative operation. ‘He would have sent about 70 SMS alerts and about 80 emails when they received a report. Then a lot more people would have been informed, also outside the police. ‘

More than ever, the question is: why didn’t justice raise the alarm at the police top, even though they immediately had the images with all the incriminating details?

De Mesmaeker has ordered an internal administrative investigation to find out exactly how the fork was on the handle. Committee P is also involved in the matter. The Supreme Court of Justice has started an investigation into the functioning of the court in this case. Because more than ever, the question is: why didn’t justice raise the alarm at the police top, even though they immediately had the images with all the incriminating details?

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