Czech activist on the investigation into the death of Stanislav Tomáš: Slowly but surely, it's moving forward, and it will be a marathon
Not quite five months has passed since the death of Romani community member Stanislav Tomáš shortly after police intervened against him in Teplice, Czech Republic. The police have recently published a brief press release in which they allege, just as they did right after this tragic incident, that the police officers' intervention was categorically unrelated to his death.
The European Parliament will be discussing police brutality against Romani people in the EU, including on the basis of this case, at a plenary session on 23 November. From the beginning, Miroslav Brož of the Konexe organization has been involved in this case and news server Romea.cz has interviewed him about how it is progressing.
Q: What does the investigation of the death of Stanislav Tomáš look like right now? What do you say about the most recent police statement that his death had nothing to do with their intervention against him?
A: The police recently published the findings of their expert assessments, from which they say it follows that Stanislav Tomáš died as a result of drug use, not as a result of the intervention we have all seen in the video. Naturally we disagree with that conclusion and I assume that when this goes to trial there will be a battle of expert opinions about how he died and why. This entire procedure is just in the beginning phases. At the very start of this case we encountered a lot of pressure to publish updates about the investigation as frequently as possible, to inform the public, above all the Romani public, about what is going on and how the investigation is proceeding. We ourselves did not have any new information and it would not have been wise to reveal some information too early - everything is running slowly, but it is running. This will be a marathon.
Q: The building where the mother of the late Mr Tomáš and his sister Simona were living recently went up in flames. Has the family moved?
A: Yes, we managed to find them a new apartment outside of the ghetto for a customary rent in a regular building. We raised more money than needed for his funeral, and the donors abroad agreed that we could use what was left over from their donations to find better, new housing for Ms Símona Tomášová and her mother. Ultimately that was a sucess. However, it was not absolutely easy, because Romani people face strong discrimination on the housing market. Even if you have money to pay the deposit and other costs of moving, for Romani people it is not easy to find an apartment that is not overpriced in a locality that is just average.
Q: That sounds like a lot of social work in your free time, what did the local social service providers there do?
A: I did my best, I spent effort and time on attempting to get nonprofits here involved. Unfortunately, they all said that the case of Ms Simona Tomášová is too complex for them. There was one nonprofit in Bílina that hleped her print out a document to sign and then scan - we at Konexe don't have a printer, so that helped us a lot.
Q: So that is the most recent information about the family's situation and the case as a whole, but let's go back to the beginning now. How did you all hear about the death of Stanislav Tomáš, and when did you decide to begin working on the case?
A: Stanislav Tomáš died during the intervention against him by the police on Saturday, 19 June 2021. Video footage capturing the intervention appeared on the Internet and quickly went viral. The next day, Sunday, 20 June, my colleague Jožka Miker was on the scene and begin doing community work with people from the building in front of which the intervention happened. By coincidence it happened in front of a building inhabited by impoverished Romani residents, but Stanislav Tomáš himself did not live there.
Q: Do we know today how exactly the police intervention against him took place?
A: We do have a comparatively clear idea, yes. We have spoken with eyewitnesses to the intervention. We believe it was not managed properly by the police and that, as a consequence of the errors the officers made, Mr Tomáš died. We hope all of the details will come to light in court, because that is where the case of the death of Mr Tomáš is heading. In general, we believe that the intervention was disproportionately forceful, driven by an exaggerated vigor and, to our knowledge, the police officers never provided Mr Tomáš with any first aid and did not try to resuscitate him, they called for reinforcements and just waited for the arrival of emergency medical responders as Mr Tomáš lay unconscious on the sidewalk, and when the ambulance arrived, the police did not have the keys to the "old" handcuffs they had placed on him, so the emergency medical technicians had to wait until another police car arrived to bring some keys for the "old" handcuffs. The fact that the officers themselves do not have body camera footage of the intervention, despite having had such equipment on them at the time, also appears suspicious. Either they are clumsy and poorly trained in how to use their cameras and did not manage to turn them on, or somebody may have deleted footage from their body cameras, we do not know why there is none. I would like to emphasize the enormous role played by the video taken by a resident of the building in front of which the intervention against Mr Tomáš took place, somebody filmed it and uploaded it to the Internet. Your news server, Romea.cz, also played a big role when you downloaded and stored the video, because the person who filmed it soon deleted it, under the pressure of events. If that video had not gone viral and attracted the attention of the entire world, then this case would have ended up as yet another "tick mark" in the column of the hundreds of thousands of Romani people who are said to have died due to drug use.
Q: Stanislav Tomáš was a drug user, therefore.
A: Yes, Mr Tomáš used drugs, but we don't know how frequently, if he used them on a daily basis or occasionally. The autopsy ascertained that he had methamphetamine in his blood, that is known in Czech as pervitin, that information was published by the police. Personally speaking, I believe he was in a state of toxic psychosis during the intervention. Toxic psychosis is a mental state evoked by drugs that is quite similar to the kind of psychosis that, for example, schizophrenics can suffer because of that illness. A person who is in a psychotic state, to speak in lay terms, is freaking out, disassociated from reality. A person who is in the throes of psychosis most likely will not cooperate with police and follow their instructions. I am convinced that police should not intervene with vigorous force against people who are in a psychotic state, whether they are people who suffer from schizophrenia or people in a toxic psychotic state. Drug dependency is a disease that is listed on the official list of diagnoses that are recognized by the World Health Organization, a doctor should be called in to deal with people in psychotic states, to work with them with the aid of different medications and therapies, not with the assistance of truncheons.
Q: That is a similarity with the case of George Floyd in the USA, who died in a similar situation to that of Stanislav Tomáš and who also had problems with drugs.
A: Yes, exactly so, there are more such details. Both men had previously had a problem with the law. I think that one of the most scandalous things about the entire case of the death of Stanislav Tomáš is how the police and politicians communicated about his death to the public. When articles were published by media outlets noticing the similiarities between the case of George Floyd and that of Mr Tomáš, the Czech Police tweeted that Mr Tomáš was "not the Czech Floyd" because he was a criminal and drug addict - and what they meant by that was that his death was not a pity. In a civilized country, I would expect police to issue a statement saying that this person died, that they regret it, that they will investigate thoroughly, and that they express their sincere condolences to the bereaved. That did not happen, though, until a longer time afterward when the Czech Police President issued a brief statement to that effect. The politicians' statements were even more scandalous, the Interior Minister, at the time the investigation had just begun, publicly alleged that everything was in order and that the officers had committed no errors, coming to that conclusion before the investigation findings had been announced and thereby endangering the independence of the investigation. That was followed by a statement from the Prime Minister who went so far as to thank (sic!) the officers for an intervention after which a person died (!). Something like that should be unthinkable in a democratic state.
Q: How did your involvement in the case continue?
A: The next day we went to Bílina together with the journalist Saša Úhlová to find the bereaved relatives of Mr Tomáš. We managed to track down his mother and his sister Simona quite quickly. His mother is quite elderly and seriously ill, she is dependent on Simona's care. They were living together in absolutely substandard conditions, an overpriced apartment without hot water service, in what is probably the worst apartment building in Bílina. When we first met Simona she was quite shaken, she had just come home from the police station, where they told her that her brother was dead. We offered her aid and free legal representation by JUDr. Maroš Matiáško, an elite attorney who has long dedicated himself to the subjects of discrimination, human rights, torture, etc. JUDr. Matiáško had been kind enough to immediately agree to represent the bereaved in this case free of charge. Fortunately, soon after that, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) contacted us and offered to cover his services from their resources. Simona signed a power of attorney and JUDr. Matiáško immediately began to take effective steps to make sure the case could not be swept under the rug. He filed a criminal report and asked for a second autopsy. We soon ascertained that in addition to their substandard housing, the financial and social situation of Simona and her mother is critical in other ways. It came to light, for example, that although her mother requires care, which Simona has actually been providing for years, the family was not drawing any of the financial contributions for caregivers to which all of us are lawfully entitled in such a situation. In addition to dealing with official matters to aid the family with stabilizing their situation, Simona was overwhelmed with other tasks, with arranging the various steps and matters associated with her brother's death. These were demanding arrangements with different authorities and institutions that she had to somehow combine with caring for her ill mother. I began regularly commuting into Bílina and to the neighboring town of Teplice, which is where most of the bureaucracies are located for Bílina's residents, and I began accompanying her as she visited those bureaucracies to arrange the matters necessary. I work full-time in a hospital, which is not absolutely an easy job, and instead of resting after work I was going right from my demanding shifts at the hospital to visit Simona and take her to the authorities and arrange different things, and it wasn't absolutely easy. I was finishing a course in health care that was intensive at that time, and at the close of June and start of July I had to take my final examinations, and I also have a family and young children of my own.
Q: The assistance and solidarity from abroad must have been a big support to you all, the death of Stanislav Tomáš evoked a big response in Europe from the human rights movement and the Romani movement.
A: Yes, that was amazing. Demonstrations were held in front of Czech embassies in many countries all over Europe demanding an impartial investigation of his death. Some of the demonstrations were organized by our friends abroad, human rights organizations or Romani organizations whom we have known a long time, we all know that we can rely on each other, but some of them were organized by groups whom we don't know, or by individuals spontaneously.
Q: There was also a conflict, in the interim, with the people involved in doing Facebook LIVE broadcasts?
THE LIVE BROADCASTER PHENOMENON
This significant phenomenon involves broadcasting live in real time through Facebook and is popular especially among poorer Roma. These broadcasters are Roma influencers who, in their frequent broadcasts, express their views on current events, especially those concerning the Romani community. They make accusations against each other and others as part of ongoing quarrels during these broadcasts, and an integral part of their activities are so-called "collections" claiming to help various Romani men and women. The broadcasters compete with each other in fundraising and providing aid.
A: Yes, exactly. At the beginning of July, I helped Simona commission funeral services and arrange for the transfer of the body from the freezer at the Forensic Institute to the freezer at the funeral parlor, where the storage costs much less, and we began to address organizing the funeral. Simona and I found her family plot and ascertained that there was no room there, a new gravesite had to be bought. During the week when we were arranging what was necessary for this, the live broadcasters were diligently broadcasting videos asking their followers to send money to them so they could "solve" the Stanislav Tomáš case. During the public holidays at the start of July, I left the region and the live broadcasters turned up in Bílina, de facto kidnapped Simona, and drove her around in a car for several days in a row, broadcasting live as they did so. They went to the funeral parlor and ordered an expensive funeral, with the invoice in Simona's name, then they washed their hands of the case. It was left to us to arrange for a dignified funeral for him and to pay for it somehow.
Q: How did that turn out?
A: It went well. It was a Catholic funeral with a brief mourning procession and burial. I would like to thank all the donors who contributed to covering the costs.
Q: Who contributed, if it's not a secret?
A: It's not a secret, most of the money was kindly provided by our partner organizations in Germany, by a foundation headquartered in Berlin, a friendly Romani organization from Scotland supported this, and the Czech Helsinki Committee collected money from individual donors. As I said, we even managed to collect more money than necessary for the funeral, and that money was then used for new housing for Simona Tomášová and her mother.
Q: Which brings us back to where we began... What would you like to say in conclusion?
A: I decidedly would like to thank people. I would like to thank your news server for covering us this entire time, for your media support and other support, and I'd also like to thank Amnesty International for all kinds of support, as well as the Czech-American human rights fighter and activist Gwendolyn Albert. I would like to thank the European Roma Rights Centre and Maroš Matiáško for doing a brilliant job on the legal side of the case. I would like to thank our sponsors abroad once more as well as all of the activists, men and women, pro-Roma and Romani, from the Federal Republic of Germany.
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