Semira Adamu, 20, was being forced onto a Sabena flight bound for Togo, in the authorities fifth attempt to deport her, when she went into a coma.
Horrified passengers remonstrated with the captain after witnessing the brutal way in which she was said to be manhandled by police. Fearing a riot the pilot refused to take off until she had been removed.
Demonstrators gathered outside the home of the Belgian Interior Minister Louis Tobback yesterday for a candlelit vigil after Ms Adamu's death was announced. Women's groups, opposition MPs and doctors demanded a moratorium on refugee expulsions. Anne Marie Lizin, a Socialist Senator, said: "They have practically assassinated that young girl."
The Government said it was waiting for the results of an autopsy and two of the gendarmes who took part in the expulsion operation were being questioned. Ms Adamu was carried on to the plane in handcuffs and leg irons by a special police unit.
The tragedy brought to an abrupt end the Belgian authorities' fifth attempt to expel Ms Adamu who had featured in a documentary on national television three days prior to her death. Despite scepticism, even among refugee campaigners, about her story, she had become a symbol of the inhumanity of the country's refugee policy.
Ms Adamu fled her native Nigeria to escape what she claimed was an arranged marriage but her asylum application was repeatedly rejected. She had been held in a closed detention centre near Brussels airport since April.
The public prosecutors office confirmed yesterday that the "cushion method" of restraining refugees who resist expulsion is "habitual". Around 15,000 expulsions from Belgium take place each year.
The case has highlighted the "fortress Europe" policy being applied by most EU governments and with particular determination by Belgium, where refugees can be held in prison-like detention camps for up to eight months.
Christine Flamand a lawyer at the Belgian Committee for Aid to Refugees said: "I ... was not convinced she had a case for asylum under the law as it stands. But just because someone does not qualify for refugee status as defined by the Geneva Convention does not mean we can forget about their rights and human dignity."Reuse content