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Commentary: Romani people should not live in fear, but justice systems are not helping

9.4.2017 14:33
This Slovak newspaper headline from 2013 reads
This Slovak newspaper headline from 2013 reads "He stabbed a Rom to death and they let him go".

At the beginning of March 2012, after the arson attack was committed against a Romani-occupied residential hotel in Aš, I and other members of the Romea.cz editorial team set out to visit the crime scene. We were unable to find out anything more by being there in person.

The Romani residents were already terrified and had already been given the full treatment by local authorities. They claimed to us that the operator of the facility had forbidden them to discuss the incident with anybody, allegedly at the behest of the police and the town leadership.

The people we spoke with downplayed the fact that somebody had wanted to harm them. They even doubted the possibility that the Molotov cocktails had been thrown into the residential hotel by neo-Nazis or other racists.

The Czech Supreme Court has now upheld the punishments for those convicted of that arson attack, both perpetrators of which belong among the neo-Nazi hard core here. The length of their sentences sadly confirms that the Czech justice system does not measure everybody by the same yardstick.

This problem also confirms a trend we are following not just in this country, but throughout all of Europe. Our civilization is turning away from the democratic rule of law and humanitarian values.

Fear and servitude

Anybody who knows about these matters should not be surprised that the victims let themselves be intimidated and manipulated. There is just one way out of the residential hotel for the most impoverished among us, and it leads to living on the street.

If the owner of a residential hotel wants something - or does not want something - it is better to make sure things suit that person than risk not having anywhere to sleep indoors. This is how the mafia customarily exerts control over local Romani inhabitants of excluded localities throughout this country.

There was no reason for things to be any different in Aš. Almost nobody takes any interest in the lives of people who live apart from the rest of society - in their real lives, the ones that happen beyond the reach of photographers and videographers.

Few people know what the marginalized here are subjected to in order to barely survive. This is not just about the crime, drugs and prostitution managed by the mafia, who are frequently connected to local bureaucrats, police officers and politicians.

This is primarily about a life lived in servitude, without freedom, one that leads to panicked fear for one's children, one's family, and oneself. When those Romani people, on the basis of "orders from above", denied to us that somebody that threatened their lives and that those involved were racists, it was precisely because of such fear, which is even stronger than their fear of another assault by violent thugs.

I am concerned that the current law on social housing, together with other integration mechanisms adopted here, will not aid these people because it involves too many compromises - or if it does provide some assistance, it will not provide enough so people can extricate themselves from these confining environments. This has to do with the very essence of the problem being addressed.

People living in ghettos will never manage to integrate until they succeed in weaning themselves away from those who have conquered them in order to make money from their poverty. Their exploiters are, first and foremost, the landlords and managers of the apartment buildings and residential hotels that belong not just to the biggest traffickers in poverty, but also to the loan sharks, pimps, producers and big dealers of drugs, etc., - who frequently are one and the same.

If you are Romani, your life is of less value to the courts 

The value of a human life in the Czech Republic is evidently worth exponentially less if the person is Romani, judging by the verdicts handed down when Romani people are the victims of serious crimes. The punishments for the 2009 arson attack in the town of Vítkov, by which the perpetrators attempted to murder eight Romani people and succeeded in severely burning a little girl as well as her parents, were 20 years or more in prison without the possibility of parole.

For the same kind of arson attack in Aš three years later - this time committed against 18 Romani people - the sentences handed down were only eight years and less than seven years for the respective perpetrators. So maybe the next time somebody attempts to set a building on fire with 28 Romani people in it they can just anticipate a suspended sentence - or if they attack a building with 38 Romani people in it, maybe they can expect an actual state honor for their efforts.

In Slovakia, the justice authorities have taken a different route: Anybody there who murders a Romani person is found to have been berserk at the time and is therefore not responsible. Let's recall the case of Hurbanovo, Slovakia, where in June 2013 a 51-year-old former local police officer named Milan Juhász shot dead three Romani people and harmed two others.

He was sentenced to just nine years in prison, which I consider a cynical derision of the victims of his horrible crime. I am convinced that if he had murdered three "whites", he would have been justifiably sentenced to life in prison.

Juházs was aided in achieving such a relatively short sentence by a psychiatric assessment that said his capacity for rationality had been reduced - despite the fact that he evidently planned and thought through everything carefully before committing his crime. Indeed, it seems that most Slovak murderers of Romani people ever since have been found to suffer from insanity or reduced capacity for rationality.

That, at least, is what appears to have happened on the basis of a recent murder case in Košice. The course of the investigation and verdict in that case is quite symptomatic - let's look at it in more detail.

Kill yourself a Rom

The murder happened at a bus station in Košice in 2010, and the court handed down its verdict in mid-December 2013. A 20-year-old student, Andrej K., had been waiting for a bus on the day in question.

Zoltán Z., a 40-year-old Romani man, approached Andrej K., begging for money. The youth immediately pulled a knife from his pocket and stabbed the man 22 times.

Andrej K. was first charged with grievous bodily harm. While there is no question that the 22 stab wounds harmed the victim's health, they primarily deprived him of his life.

Detectives gradually followed that logic themselves and legally assessed the crime as one of "particularly grave felony murder". The prosecutor, however, let the perpetrator go on his own recognizance, apparently finding that being remanded into custody would not have suited this "decent" white student.

The high point of the case happened in court, where two two-member teams of expert psychiatrists testified. The first team alleged that the student had been under the influence of a pathological state of affect at the moment he committed his assault - a trance in which his ability to control himself and recognize what was happening absolutely vanished.

The second team also believed the youth had acted under the influence of affect in reaction to a stressor, but said his ability to control himself and recognize what was happening had merely been reduced. The court then asked a third pair of experts for their assessment.

Those experts ascertained that Andrej K. does not suffer from any mental disease or disorder "but within a fraction of a second found himself under the influence of a delusional, psychotic, temporary disorder." That testimony was followed by an enormous legal "surprise".

The same prosecutor who had not requested the murderer be remanded into custody now proposed to the court that he be released because he had been insane at the time of the murder. The experts did not propose protective treatment for the youth, because in their opinion he is not mentally ill.

Andrej K. was not considered responsible for his actions. The court, therefore, let this murderer go free.

Increasing exclusion

The signals sent by these verdicts to society (Czech and Slovak) are no-brainers:  Go ahead and kill yourself a Rom, with impunity, and you will be celebrated on the online social networking sites. Through its verdicts in these cases, the justice system is contributing to the fear that is a common component of life in excluded localities.

We could discuss many other similar examples. They all demonstrate what the most essential piece of successful integration is:  The feeling held by people living in ghettos that the justice system is only interested in them when they themselves commit a crime, a feeling that increases their exclusion from society and postpones their integration indefinitely.

Integration is a two-way street, so if we want to escape the vicious circle of exclusion, we must want to end this cycle. Would you want to be part of a society to whom your life was worth almost nothing?

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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antigypsyism, Czech Republic, Roma, Slovakia



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