Historic verdict: Court awards compensation to a Romani woman for sterilization for the first time
Today the Regional Court in Ostrava awarded compensation of CZK 500 000 to a 30-year-old Romani woman, Iveta Červeňáková, for having been sterilized against her will. Ostrava City Hospital is to pay the damages. Jana Koláčková of the League of Human Rights informed Romea.cz of the decision. According to Kumar Vishwanathan of the Vzájemné soužití (Life Together) civic association, this is most likely the historically first case of compensation being awarded to a woman who was sterilized against her will. Holubová was sterilized 10 years ago. "She was not sufficiently informed and did not even learn she had had such surgery until seven years later," Vishwanathan said.
The Regional Court in Ostrava ruled that the woman, whom doctors sterilized without her proper consent, is entitled to an apology and compensation for the physical and psychological harm caused to her. Judge Otakar Pochmon said the surgery performed on the mother of two, who has since then unsuccessfully attempted artificial insemination four times, was irreversible. The illegal violation was committed in July 1997 at the Ostrava City Hospital.
|A review of key moments and aspects in the cases of involuntary sterilisation of Romany women in the Czech Republic |
|September 13, 2004 - The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) presents its suspicion of forced sterilisation of Czech Romany women. It says in some cases the women did not give consent to their sterilisation or nodded only in an extreme situation or when facing the threat of being stripped of social allowances. Romany women were sterilised in the then Czechoslovakia in 1959-1990, the studies said.|
|September 17, 2004 - ERRC and three Czech NGOs call on the Czech government to establish a commission to investigate the cases of forced sterilisation. The commission was eventually founded at the Health Ministry.|
|October 1, 2004 - Ombudsman Otakar Motejl confirms that he received first pieces of information about ten women who had undergone sterilisation in 1991-2001 in hospitals in North Moravia. Most of the cases reportedly happened in 1991-1997. About 80 women, mainly Romany, gradually turned to the ombudsman with their complaints.|
|March 4, 2005 - Helena Ferencikova sues a hospital in Ostrava, north Moravia, for having performed involuntary sterilisation on her. The hospital dismissed the accusation saying Ferencikova had consented to being sterilised.|
|July 8, 2005 - Motejl says that cases of sterilisation of Romany women in the Czech Republic occurred only rarely in the previous years. "I have no evidence to support the assertion that programme sterilisation of Romany women was applied in the Czech Republic," he said.|
|November 11, 2005 - The Regional Court in Ostrava decides that the hospital has to apologise to Ferencikova. However, it turns down her claim for compensation worth one million crowns.|
|January 6, 2006 - Motejl proposes that a bill be passed to enable compensation of involuntarily sterilised women. Up to 58 women were unlawfully sterilised in the past, Motejl said, adding, however, that racial discrimination was not involved. He said the female patients' files lack documents such as the patient's written request or a document proving that she had been informed about sterilisation and its consequences.|
|August 18, 2006 - Romany woman Elena Gorolova testifies in the U.N. headquarters that doctors in an Ostrava hospital had sterilised her several years ago. She conceded that she had given a written consent to the surgery, but said it was performed on her without her proper knowledge.|
|January 17, 2007 - The High Court in Olomouc, north Moravia, confirms that Ferencikova has the right to the hospital's apology for forcing her into sterilisation. Like the lower-level court, the Olomouc court rejected her claim for financial compensation. The Ostrava-Vitkovice hospital management apologised to her in March.|
|May 28, 2007 - Sterilisation of women without their consent is a crime, a north Bohemian state attorney's office concludes while checking two cases of women's sterilisation in a local hospital.|
|July 17, 2007 - The daily Lidove noviny writes that the people who underwent involuntary sterilisation in the past could receive compensation of up to 200,000 crowns. The guidelines for compensating these people had been completed by the Committee for Biomedicine and Human Rights, an advisory body of the Government Council for Human Rights. The proposal would require the government's approval, the paper wrote.|
|October 12, 2007 - The Ostrava Regional Court rules that Iveta Cervenakova is eligible to financial compensation worth 500,000 crowns for being involuntarily sterilised by the Ostrava Municipal Hospital. The hospital defends itself saying it has Cervenakova's written consent.|
The hospital claims it has the patient's written consent on file and is considering appealing to the High Court in Olomouc. "The management of City Hospital is aware of today's verdict. We believe it necessary to wait for the written verdict, and then we will consider the option of an appeal," the spokesperson for the health care facility, Marie Dlabalová, told ČTK.
Dlabalová also said the sterilization of women at Ostrava City Hospital had already been investigated by a Czech Health Ministry commission and the ombudsman. "So far criminal investigations were initiated in five cases, all of which were shelved, since no crime was found to have been committed," she said.
On 7 July 1997 Ms Červeňáková (née Holubová) gave birth by Caesarian section to her second child, Kristýna. She was sterilized during the same operation. Even though it was known in advance that she would have to give birth by Caesarian, the doctors did not follow the legal process for acquiring her consent to the sterilization. The doctors did not ask for her "consent" until Ms Červeňáková was under the influence of anaesthesia. At the time of surgery she was 19 years old. "I didn't even know what it meant," Červeňáková told ČTK today. Moreover, just before giving birth she had become one of the victims of the destructive floods in Ostrava that year and had other worries besides giving birth to focus on, such as finding a place to live after moving out of her flooded home.
Červeňáková says that for seven years she was under the impression that she had merely been given an IUD. When she visited the doctor to have it removed and told him she wanted another child, she learned the truth. She and her husband are now considering adoption. "I already have all the necessary forms to fill out. I would like to have a little boy at home," the mother of two girls said.
Červeňáková's lawyer, Michaela Kopalová of the League of Human Rights, says the hospital procedure was rife with deficiencies. "The commission that was to decide whether to permit the sterilization did not meet until 10 days after my client gave birth. There is also no document that can prove she was ever made aware that sterilization is irreversible," the lawyer said.
Commenting on the verdict of the Ostrava Regional Court, Kopalová said: "This is the fairest verdict to date ever issued in the Czech Republic concerning such a violation by doctors of the physical integrity of a woman giving birth. I believe the Czech courts will continue in the future to respect the case law of the Supreme Court, according to which entitlement to monetary compensation in cases of violation of personality rights is not subject to any statute of limitations."
According to the League of Human Rights, the amount awarded is just the first step towards truly fair compensation for such serious violations of a woman's rights. The doctors' arbitrary treatment of such women has forever deprived them of the chance to have their own children. The amount awarded is exactly half the amount originally sought. The first case of such illegal sterilization to be handled by the Czech courts, that of Helena Ferenčíková, resulted in the awarding of an apology but not financial compensation due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. This case continues to await an appeal verdict before the Supreme Court in Brno. In recent years the Supreme Court has ruled that violations of personality rights are not subject to statutes of limitations.
The Červeňáková case is the second case of undesired sterilization to be ruled on by the Ostrava Regional Court. In 2005 the court ruled that the management of the Ostrava-Vítkovice hospital must send a letter of apology to Helena Ferenčíková, who was 22 at the time of her sterilization, for an identical rights violation. The court found she had not been sufficiently informed prior to the sterilization. However, due to the statute of limitations, the court refused to award the million crowns in damages sought by the Romani woman.
"According to previous Supreme Court verdicts, entitlement to compensation for non-monetary damages can no longer be subject to the statute of limitations," Kopalová said. She added that today's verdict raises the hope that financial satisfaction will also be awarded to Ferenčíková. "I believe we will succeed when the case is returned to the Ostrava Regional Court," she said.
The League of Human Rights is making use of this opportunity to criticie the Czech government, which has been at a loss to address this issue despite many urgent recommendations by international human rights treaty monitoring bodies at the UN to apologize to and compensate all women sterilized during the communist era and during the 1990s. The League particularly considers recent remarks by Czech Human Rights Minister Džamila Stehlíková, who has publicly doubted the possibility of the government compensating women sterilized in violation of the law, to be immeasurably regrettable.
The Czech government is well aware that poorer citizens of the Czech Republic, including the women who have been sterilized in this manner, do not have the financial means to be represented before the courts by attorneys, and the state has not invested any money into assisting the victims of past human rights violations. The cases of Ms Ferenčíková and Ms Červeňáková, each of whom was sterilized in a different hospital, are just the tip of the iceberg. As confirmed by the Final Statement of the Public Defender of Rights, Otakar Motejl, in December 2005, there have been a minimum of several dozens of victims of such illegal sterilization in several regions throughout the country . The Czech Republic is one of the last countries in Europe without a comprehensive system of free legal aid. In the past, European countries such as Germany, Norway and Sweden have awarded compensation to victims of such sterilizations.
There are other cases of unwanted sterilization in the Czech Republic. "I am representing three women, but I know of approximately 90 others who turned to the Public Defender of Rights," Kopalová said. In her opinion, doctors and hospital representatives are giving the same arguments in all of the cases. "They defend themselves by claiming that a third birth by Caesarian section would pose a significant danger to the mother and that they are acting in her best interests," she said.
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