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August 17, 2017
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Commentary: The value of life in Central Europe depends on skin color

17.6.2017 11:12
Romani eyewitnesses to the 16 April 2017 police intervention in Zborov, Slovakia, described to the press on 25 May 2017 what they saw. (PHOTO:  Redakcia 1)
Romani eyewitnesses to the 16 April 2017 police intervention in Zborov, Slovakia, described to the press on 25 May 2017 what they saw. (PHOTO: Redakcia 1)

The feeling that anything at all can be done to Romani people with impunity has long been sustained in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other countries of our region by the approach taken by state bodies and institutions. The recent news from Zborov is not the first time that Slovak Police officers have raided a Romani settlement and committed groundless violence there, but this time there is evidence of their behavior in the form of video footage.

"Hit him, it's just a Rom"

This April, Slovak Police officers raided a settlement in Zborov, Slovakia, beating everybody who was standing on the street with their batons, children and a pregnant woman included. The officers justified their intervention by saying they had to establish "order".

They threatened the Romani residents with retribution if any of them had filmed the raid and decided to publish the footage. Some Romani residents filmed the intervention but, probably because of such threats, it was not released until the end of May by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in an online article featuring the footage.

"We have incontrovertible evidence that police committed errors in this case and violated the law," the former Plenipotentiary of the Slovak Government for the Romani Community, Peter Pollák, told news server Romea.cz. Correspondents for Romea.cz then went to Slovakia and filmed testimonies by eyewitnesses in Zborov.

Taken together with the video footage of the incident, those testimonies could be enough to convict the officers of using unjustifable force against the Romani residents. Journalists Patrik Banga, Jan Čonka and Zdeněk Ryšavý have done this very important work well.

Nobody ever stands up for Romani people, and that is why it is necessary to make an honest, thorough collection of the evidence of all the lawlessness that is committed against them. The police officers will most likely not end up in prison as they should - that is not the custom in postcommunist countries in relation to Roma.

It is, however, necessary to have concrete facts documenting these incidents for the various reports about racism and xenophobia that are produced about our region. Only when there is pressure, in the form of such reports, exerted by the rest of the world in our direction are some small efforts ever made by officialdom about the dissatisfactory situation of people living on the outskirts of society.

Bullying of children, "temporarily insane" murderers

This incident is far from the first time the Slovak Police have had to face a similar scandal. For example, in 2009 they were captured on video brutally bullying Romani boys.

Eight police officers in Košice forced six Romani youths to strip naked, slap each other, kiss each other, and threatened to punish whichever boy was the last to take off his clothes. The officers intimidated them using police dogs without muzzles.

The officers themselves recorded all of this on their mobile phones. The sense of impunity that the Slovak Police - and very often the Czech Police - seem to operate with is supported by the behavior of the justice system and politicians.

For example, anybody who murders a Romani person is later found to have been temporarily insane. We can recall the case from Hurbanovo where, in June 2013, Milan Juhász, a 51-year-old municipal police officer, shot dead three Romani people and wounded another two.

He was sentenced to nine years in prison, a length of time that is a grossly cynical mockery of the victims of this horrible crime. Juházs was aided in his pursuit of a brief sentence by a psychiatric evaluation that said his capacity for self-control had been temporarily diminished, despite the fact that he had evidently carefully planned and thought out all that he eventually did.

Another symptomatic case in this direction is the murder of a Romani man at the Košice bus station in 2010. A 20-year-old non-Romani student, Andrej K., was waiting for a bus there.

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

The student was first charged with "harming the health" of the victim (in other words, battery). Well, 22 stab wounds doubtless would harm the victim's health, but they mainly deprived him of his life. t

Detecives gradually worked their way towards that logic as well and tightened the legal qualification of the crime to "aggravated first-degree murder". The prosecutor, despite these charges, let the accused be released on his own recognizance, apparently finding that the "decent" white student was not a candidate for remanding into custody.

The high point of the case happened in court, where two different two-member teams of psychiatric experts testified. The first team alleged that the student had, at the moment of the attack, found himself in a state of pathological affect, a foggy state in which his cognitive and self-control capabilities vanished.

The second team admitted that the youth was reacting to stress and acting in a state of affect, but alleged that his cognitive and self-control capabilities had been merely diminished. The court, therefore, asked a third pair of experts for their opinion.

Team Three ascertained that Andrej K. does not suffer from any mental disorder or illness, but that "at a certain fraction of a second he found himself under the influence of a delusional psychotic disorder, temporarily". This opinion was followed by an "enormous surprise".

The same prosecutor who failed to remand the murderer into custody proposed the court release him because he had been "temporarily" insane. The experts did not propose the youth receive psychiatric treatment because, in their view, he is not mentally ill.

Because of his "temporary" insanity, the murderer was not considered responsible for his behavior. The court, therefore, let him walk free.

The value of life decreases the darker your skin is

The value of a human life, when the person is Romani, evidently decreases exponentially in the Czech Republic as well. For the arson attack committed in Vítkov, Czech Republic, where the perpetrators wanted to murder eight Romani people and ended up severely burning a little girl (and less severely injuring her parents), sentences were handed down 20 and 22 years without the possibility of parole, but for the very same kind of attack committed in Aš against 18 Romani people the sentences were just eight years or less - so perhaps if somebody attempts to set a building on fire with 28 Romani people it they'll just get a suspended sentence, or who knows, if there are 38 Roma there they might even be decorated with a medal.

Thanks to news server Romea.cz, it is also sufficiently well-known that Czech Police officers on duty at anti-Romani demonstrations customarily let neo-Nazs insult Romani people and are not bothered by slogans calling for violence that are obviously illegal. The symbol of this institutional racism is the anti-Romani demonstration in Rumburk a few years ago where the participants shouted, among other things, "Gypsies to the gas chambers!", "Black swine!" and "We'll burn you alive!"

There were calls from the speakers' platform for Romani people to be lynched with pitchforks, shovels, etc., after which the demonstrators set out on a march and threw rocks and tree branches at a Romani-occupied building. What did the police do?

They spent their time preventing correspondents from news server Romea.cz from doing their jobs so the truth would come to light. Afterward they took some demonstrators into the station and charged them with misdemeanors (sic!).

You read that correctly:  An attempted lynching of Romani people, incited by threats to put them to death in gas chambers, is a misdemeanor according to the Czech Police. Nobody else here even thinks anything is wrong with that outcome!

Another example from the region is that of Romani people in Ukraine. In January 2012, Ukrainian Police, during a raid in Uzhhorod, used racist abuse and threats and, in front of young children, brutally beat the Romani men and women there.

Several of the men beaten by police officers ended up in hospital, some with serious head injuries. One man, long ill with tuberculosis, died after the raid.

News server Romea.cz never managed to find our whether the raid was ultimately considered the immediate cause of his death or not. When we look elsewhere in the region, Romani people do not fare any better in Hungary or Poland.

To write about the racism and xenophobia of politicians from the postcommunist countries of our region is like trying to take down a wall with a blowdart. Instead of attempting to correct racism, politicians here frequently promote it, leading through racist, xenophobic speeches demonstrating their absolute ignorance of this topic.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the justice system and police make decisions about Romani people as if they were second-class citizens. When we add in the anti-refugee hysteria currently underway here, the view of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and other Central European countries is actually quite sad.

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Czech Republic, human rights, Police, Politics, Racism, Roma, Slovakia, Ukraine



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