BRUSSELS – A top Belgian police official stepped aside Thursday a day after the emergence of a 2018 video showing an officer sitting on top of a Slovak man in custody at a local airport and another officer apparently making a Hitler salute. The man, who was in distress, later died.
Belgium's government itself reacted vigorously after the video from an ongoing investigation came to light Wednesday and Justice Minister Koen Geens said it was “unseemly and totally shocking."
Interior Minister Pieter De Crem said that “it is something out of all proportion. The circumstances need to be clarified and an investigation is ongoing.’’
On Thursday evening, the No. 2 federal police official, André Desenfants, stepped aside after he saw the video. He said it was a personal decision even though he didn't make a mistake himself. But he wasn't informed about all the details of what happened, he said.
Desenfants said he wasn't resigning, but temporarily leaving his post until an investigation is carried out.
He said the case had touched him personally “and that is why I asked the Commissioner General to replace me for the time necessary.“
The Slovak man, Jozef Chovanec, had been prevented from boarding a plane at Charleroi airport after he didn't show a ticket and was disruptive. In the detention room, the security video shows him repeatedly banging his head against the wall. Once officers came in, they put him on a bed and forcefully restricted his movements, with one officer sitting on him for a long time. Another officer made an apparent Nazi salute during the incident.
Chovanec's widow, Henrieta Chovancova, complained to Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper, which first published the video Wednesday, that the officers should have cared more about his urgent health needs since he was obviously in distress and needed to breathe. Chovanec died after emergency health officials took him to a hospital.
“We as a family want to know why they did it to him," Chovancova told Belgian broadcaster VTM. “Why did they treat him like this? Worse than even an animal, like he wasn’t even human being."
She said the investigation is taking too long, but Justice Minister Geens said the probe faced delays because of the pandemic and because the defense asked for more investigative actions to be taken.
The issue has gained extra prominence after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Four former Minneapolis police officers were charged after Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died after a white officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes on May 25 as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn't breathe.
This story has been corrected to show airport is in Charleroi, not Brussels