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Reconstruction hopes to finally uncover cause of Josef Chovanec's death

Illustration picture shows Brussels South Airport, in Charleroi, Tuesday 24 March 2020. ( BELGA PHOTO VIRGINIE LEFOUR)
06:39 28/09/2021

Investigators are carrying out a full-scale reconstruction of the events on the night of 24 February 2018 at Charleroi airport in an attempt to fully understand what happened to Josef Chovanec and how exactly he lost his life after being detained by police.

More than three and a half years after the incident which claimed the Slovak’s life, officials from the justice department began their reconstruction on Monday. While the main focus will be on the police cell at the airport where Chovanec was held for five hours on the night in question, other areas are being used such as the arrivals hall and a part of the tarmac outside. This could lead to some disruption at the airport due to partial closures of these areas. The reconstruction is due to end on Tuesday, with a press conference to be held afterwards.

"There will be a lot of people involved,” explained Ignacio de la Serna, prosecutor-general of Mons. “First, all the actors of that night: police, rescuers, doctors... Then, there will be the investigating judge who demanded this reconstruction and her team of experts. The public prosecutor will attend as well as Chovanec's widow, the family’s lawyers and technical advisers."

The reconstruction has been taking place in real-time, minute by minute, with every gesture, dialogue and attitude being reproduced. The objective is to allow the magistrate to visualise the places and to better understand the different interventions of the protagonists. "To be as close as possible to what really happened, we will have to rely on the sincerity of the actors,” said Vincent Seron, professor of criminology at the University of Liège. “There may be a margin between what is said and the truth."

That will be the greatest challenge for the prosecutor-general of Mons: to distinguish the true from the false. "If we want the investigation to be complete, going through this step is essential to be able to close the book on this,” said de la Serna. “The goal is to compare all the elements of the file with what will be shown. By reproducing the scene, we will see if the content of the interviews and reports correspond or not to reality."

On the family’s side, the staging of the reconstitution has been eagerly awaited. This should be, for Chovanec’s widow and her lawyers, the opportunity to better understand what may have happened in this cell, to go beyond the images captured by the surveillance camera.

"We have videos, obviously, but on the other hand, and this is very important, we don't have the sound,” said Ann Van De Steen, the lawyer for Henrieta, the Slovak's wife. “We would like to know what was said or done and by whom. For my client, it is very important that she can finally see what everyone in this cell has done. In the end, it is a confrontation with the awful death of her husband."

One of the challenges of this reconstruction will be to understand what may have caused the death of Josef Chovanec. Several possible reasons are mentioned: the blows that the Slovak inflicted on himself, the police intervention, the sedative that was injected into him. So far, none of these have proved to be definitive. However, a new report leaked last week added more weight to the belief that the injuries Chovanec inflicted on himself were the main cause of his death.

"The death is related to a state of brain death caused by edema that can be plausibly related to the many violent impacts of Mr. Chovanec's head against the wall of the cell," reads the report. The release of this supposedly classified report, a few days before the reconstruction, has provoked a strong reaction.

"This disrupts the smooth running of the investigation,” said Ignacio de la Serna. “This prevents justice from doing its job properly and efficiently. This report is not final. Everything will depend on the reconstruction."

The family’s lawyers say they had not been informed that a new expert report had been conducted. Van De Steen even claimed that the report was designed to exonerate the police: "We are very surprised to hear this because currently, for us, there is no new expert report. We have had contact with our own experts, and they are just as amazed as we are. There is no conclusion that has been drawn any way."

The leak of this report, which was in principle intended to serve as a working basis for the reconstruction, adds additional tension to this sensitive issue. For the criminologist, Vincent Seron, events like those of recent days do not necessarily change the trajectory of the case. "These are all the elements that will make it possible to establish the judicial truth," he explained.

The death of Josef Chovanec sent shockwaves through the police and caused a scandal that continues to reverberate in the pages of the nation’s newspapers.

On the evening of 24 February 2018, Chovanec was arrested on the tarmac of Charleroi airport. The reason for his arrest was stated as being his lack of ticket when he arrived at the door of the plane he was boarding to fly back to Slovakia. He started to act strangely. The police then decided to take him to a cell at the airport.

It is precisely in this cell that the situation started to deteriorate. The Slovak started hitting his head against a wall, about 40 times in total. Bloody and very agitated, he was then firmly subdued by the police. The scene, filmed but without sound, shows that one of the officers immobilised Chovanec by kneeling on him for more than 15 minutes.

From the images which were later leaked, the atmosphere in the cell seems bizarre. While Josef Chovanec was restrained, a policewoman stood nearby making a Nazi salute, while others laughed. After several hours of intervention, a doctor was called, and the Slovak is injected with a sedative as a last resort.

Shortly after, the unconscious Josef Chovanec was taken to hospital. He died a few days later. At the time, a first autopsy revealed that a heart attack was the cause of his death.

Written by Nick Amies