European Court of Justice finds Czech utility discriminates against Roma in Bulgaria
Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that yesterday the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that the decision by the Bulgarian division of the Czech power company ČEZ to install electricity meters in the predominantly Romani-occupied quarter of the town of Dupnica at a greater height than in other parts of town constitutes discrimination. ČEZ spokesperson Barbora Půlpánová, however, told the Czech News Agency that the meters were installed prior to ČEZ entering the Bulgarian market.
In December 2008, Ivana Nokolova, who runs a shop in the Gizdov quarter, filed a complaint with the Bulgarian Commission for Protection against Discrimination (KZD) claiming that the location of the meters in inaccessible places was a result of the fact that most of the inhabitants of the quarter are Romani. While Nikolova herself is not Romani, she believes she was also being discriminated against as a result of the dubious practices of the ČEZ company.
Nikolova argued that ČEZ installed all of the equipment at a height of between six and seven meters only in Gizdov but left it at the original height elsewhere in town, thereby indicating that all of the inhabitants of Gizdov are untrustworthy and stigmatizing the entire local community as thieves. The KZD found that she had actually been discriminated against in comparison to customers whose meters are located in accessible places.
ČEZ defended itself by suing at the Administrative Court in Sofia, which then asked the European Court of Justice to decide the case. Its judgment is that it is not possible to install meters at an inaccessible height in one quarter if they are installed at the customary height elsewhere in the same town.
The Court ruled that "the principle of equal treatment does not only apply to persons of a certain ethnic origin, but also to persons who, while they themselves may not be part of a certain ethnicity, are treated less favorably together with them or are specifically disadvantaged together with them because of discriminatory measures." Moreover, the Court said the behavior of ČEZ indicates that the installations could constitute discrimination on the basis of ethnic affiliation because the practice was introduced in a neighborhood where most of the inhabitants are of Romani origin.
"Among the indications that may be taken into consideration is the fact that the practice concerned was introduced only in neighborhoods where most of the inhabitants are Bulgarian citizens of Romani origin. That also applies to the fact that ČEZ claimed to the KZD that unauthorized consumption of power and interference with equipment is primarily committed by persons of Romani origin, which could indicate that the practice complained of is based on ethnic prejudice or stereotypes," the press release of the European Court of Justice reads.
The state must find a different solution, according to the Court, for guaranteeing the security of the electrical network and the correct recording of consumption. The inaccessible height at which the meters are located reportedly prevents customers from monitoring their consumption.
"The meters were installed at that height previously, long before the ČEZ company entered the Bulgarian market. The reason was to protect the health and often even the very lives of the people in localities where unauthorized manipulation with the equipment occurred very frequently," the ČEZ spokesperson said.
ČEZ says it must now study the European Court of Justice judgment in detail. "No fine has yet been assessed against us. Moreover, this is not a final decision, merely an answer to the questions asked by the Bulgarian court handling the matter," Půlpánová said.
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