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12th Aug 2022

Flemish prime minister under fire over police killing

  • 'I always mean well with the police and will defend their job with passion, but what I saw in those images is inadmissible, inexplicable and terrible,' Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon said (Photo: Council of the EU)

Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon appeared on Tuesday (1 September) before a Belgian parliamentary committee to explain the arrest and death of Slovak citizen Jozef Chovanec, after Belgian police brutality was revealed in a leaked security footage of the cell where he was held.

Last month, video emerged revealing several police officials brutally pinning down Chovanec in a cell at Charleroi Airport, hours before his death, and an officer giving a Hitler salute. The footage has reopened the debate about the authorities' subsequent response to the incident.

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"I was shocked, like everyone else, when I first saw [the video]. I always mean well with the police and will defend their job with passion, but what I saw in those images is inadmissible, inexplicable and terrible, for their colleagues and society as a whole," Jambon said.

However, the Flemish prime minister, who was Belgium's home affairs minister when the 38-year-old Slovak citizen died in 2018, has got himself into hot water due to a "communication error".

Earlier, Jambon, a deputy leader of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, claimed that he had no knowledge of the facts surrounding Chovanec's death - before then admitting last Saturday that he had been in contact with the Slovak ambassador at the time.

Jambon said he forgot the meeting with the ambassador due to a terror attack that took place at the time in Liege.

Ahead of the ambassadors meeting, his cabinet received a "neutral" and "concise" police report which did not reflect the attitude of the police officers revealed by the surveillance cameras of the airport, Jambon defended.

"Those images never reached me or my cabinet. What I see in those images is intolerable and horrible. [But] it looked completely different two-and-a-half years ago," Jambon told the hearing.

Moreover, he said that the interview with the Slovak ambassador did not provide him with any "alarming" information.

"Apart from that [police] report, I had nothing else," he said.

"There was no reason to doubt about the report. I have no mistrust of the police. Imagine if we lived in such a society? That would be unworkable," he added.

In the report, which was leaked by national media, little can be found about what happened inside the custody cell.

Europol head Catherine De Bolle, who was Belgian police chief in 2018, and her successor Marc De Mesmaeker, were also grilled on Tuesday.

De Bolle told the joint parliamentary committee that she was not informed of the facts, saying that she trusts that the ongoing investigation will reveal why nobody reported the issue to her.

"If I had had the images I would have taken the necessary measures," she said.

De Mesmaeker, whose previous position had no authority over the federal police, said that he did his job "correctly and transparently" - pointing out that the population's trust in the police was at stake.

The images shown by the video have led to an ongoing internal police investigation.

Calls for Jambon resignation

However, opposition parties have been demanding Jambon's resignation over the twists in his account of his role.

The head of the Brussels socialist PS, Ahmed Laaouej, said that the former minister's explanation was "not credible".

Current Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès said on Monday she wants to believe in the good faith of Jambon.

"If he says he has never seen these images, I have no reason to believe that he has seen them," she told LN24.

"A resignation from a position that you have already left is special [but] everyone must take their responsibilities according to what he thinks should be done," she added.

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