Slovakia: Acquittal of police who bullied Romani children called unacceptable
The acquittal by a Slovak court last week of police officers charged with abusing six Romani boys in 2009 has sparked a great deal of disagreement in the country. The court refused to enter into evidence the video footage taken by the officers themselves using mobile phones during the beating and humiliation of the boys.
The court's decision has yet to take effect and the prosecution has appealed. The footage shows the officers forcing the children to beat each other and kiss each other, as well as setting unmuzzled police dogs on them.
The court rejected the videos as the prosecution's main evidence, calling them illegally obtained, as per the applicable laws, courts must pre-approve the production of hidden camera footage or wiretap recordings. Slovak news server Denník N explains that the law facilitated this rejection of the evidence, as it all but ordered the judges to reject video evidence recorded by the perpetrators themselves.
"Lawyers can argue over whether, in this specific case, the court proceeded too conservatively, or whether it has precisely met the letter of the law. The lay public is unavoidably left with the sense that we are witnessing a scandalously unjust decision," writes Denník N.
The truth must come out
Speaking to the press, the chair of the Romani Union Party in Slovakia, František Tanko, called the decision by the Košice District Court absolutely unacceptable. "The truth must finally come out. It is unacceptable for the police officers to first be fired for this behavior and then, in the end, for it to look like they will have to be rehired and even compensated. We cannot consider this to be an example of the rule of law," Tanko told news server Romovia.sme.sk.
Tanko is of the opinion that the reason for the acquittal is the fact that the victims were Romani. "There is no doubt that they would never have done this to white boys, they can do it only with gypsies," Tanko said.
Ivan Hriczko of the nonprofit organization Proregio Košice has also given a statement about the court's verdict. "I condemn the behavior of the police staff and I also condemn the alleged behavior of the boys, who are said to have caused an elderly woman trauma," he said.
The group of boys was suspected of having injured and robbed an older woman. That was the pretext for police bringing them to the station.
The Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic has refused to give a statement about the verdict. "The Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic cannot express an opinion of the court's decision, we can only respect it," Michaela Paulenová of the ministry's press department told the Romani newspaper Romano nevo ľil.
Vanda Durbáková, the attorney for the Romani boys, considers the court's verdict scandalous. "It seems that Slovak justice is unable to guarantee an effective access to justice even in the most prominent, unambiguous cases of cruel and inhuman treatment in our society. The courts have been unable to effectively protect citizens from serious misconduct by units of state repression such as the police, which I consider alarming. I believe the appeals court will overturn this decision on the basis of the prosecutor's appeal and that the victims will not ultimately have to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to get justice," she said in a press release.
Peter Pollák, the Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Romani Community Affairs, has also issued a statement about the case. "From the video footage it can be seen that the police officers, in my opinion, did bully the boys, and that is why I appreciate the fact that the prosecutor has appealed the verdict. I condemn such humiliating treatment and such practices being used with children and youth," he posted to his Facebook profile.
Not the first time
This is not the first time that suspicions have arisen that the Slovak courts are biased when it comes to addressing such cases. Stano Daniel, a project manager with the Open Society Foundation Slovakia, has published on the organization's blog a list of many cases where Romani people have died after interventions by the Slovak police.
"The acquittal of the police officers from Košice charged with abusing the Romani boys is not so surprising when we look at the broader context. I did not anticipate it myself, up until the last moment I hoped the abuse would receive a just punishment. However, in the context of previous decisions in such cases and of the typical police procedures used against Romani people, this genuinely is no surprise," Daniel writes at the start of his blog.
Daniel describes a case from 1999 in which a 21-year-old Romani man died during a police interrogation as a result of a shooting wound to the abdomen. The court in Poprad closed the case, saying that during the interrogation the man had grabbed an officer's pistol and shot himself.
The case made it to the European Court of Human Rights 11 years later thanks to the efforts of the young man's widow. According to the court, the authorities responsible committed wrongdoing by failing to properly investigate the case.
SELECTED PROBLEMATIC POLICE INTERVENTIONS AGAINST ROMANI PEOPLE IN SLOVAKIA
August 1999 - A 21-year-old Romani man dies after a police interrogation as a result of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. According to the official version of events, the man grabbed a detective's pistol and shot himself during interrogation at a police station in Poprad. The case made it to the European Court of Human Rights 11 years later thanks to the efforts of the young man's widow.
6 July 2001 - At a police station in the Central Slovakian town of Revúca, several police officers beat a 51-year-old Romani man, Karol Sendrei, so brutally that he died as a result of his injuries. Seven police officers were charged in the case and released six months later. Four of them were then convicted and given sentences ranging from four to eight and a half years in prison.
21 March 2009 - Police officers in Košice detained six Romani boys aged 10 -15 after they allegedly injured and robbed an older woman. At the police station, under the threat of corporal punishment and a constant torrent of verbal abuse, the police forced the boys to kiss each other, slap each other, and strip naked. The scenes of humiliation were recorded using a mobile telephone. Nine police officers were fired in connection with the crime. On 27 February 2015 all 10 of the current or former police officers prosecuted in connection with the crime were acquitted.
9 May 2010 - After a riot unit intervention in Tornal'a during the annual celebrations there to honor the victims of the Second World War, a 46-year-old Romani man died of suffocation after police officers allegedly used a disproportionate amount of teargas against him. According to witnesses, officers beat and kicked the man.
16 June 2012 - A former municipal police officer in Hurbanovo, southern Slovakia, shot a 44-year-old man, the man's son and the man's father-in-law with a weapon he was not licensed to use. Another son of the main victim survived a gunshot through the lung and his wife suffered a leg injury during the incident. The ex-officer said he wanted to "solve the problem of inadaptable inhabitants" by shooting them.
19 June 2013 - Ten police officers and riot police occupied the Romani settlement in Moldava nad Bodvou during the evening. Officers were allegedly looking for wanted persons there. Shortly after the police raid, however, occupants of the settlement claimed the officers broke into their homes for no reason, attacking children and women and reportedly using stun guns and tear gas.
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