Slovakia: Romani soldier survives Afghanistan only to die after police intervention back home
The Slovak courts are continuing to review the case of a 44-year-old professional soldier, Ivan Koliščák, who died in April 2013 after police intervened against him in a restaurant in the town of Trebišov. He died on the spot; emergency medical technicians called to the scene did not manage to revive him.
A waitress called police after a conflict arose in the restaurant during which Koliščák allegedly behaved aggressively. The following day police leadership publicly stated that their officers were not responsible for the soldier's death.
"The man who had committed rioting was kneeling before the bar with his hands above his head when the patrol arrived. He was instructed by the patrol to pay for the damage he had caused and to leave the premises, but he then physically assaulted a member of the patrol. After instructing him to stop, officers handcuffed him and he subsequently calmed down," Slovak Interior Ministry spokesperson Lucia Garajová told the public immediately after the incident.
The spokesperson went on to say that the man's relatives informed officers at the scene that the soldier had experienced similar states in the past and that they could be solved by administering tranquilizers. According to several doctors, Koliščák was suffering from excited delirium syndrome, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, after returning from deployment in Afghanistan, but other experts have alleged that the soldier was not demonstrably suffering from any serious disease.
A detective from the Inspection of the Slovak Interior Ministry launched a criminal prosecution in the case in October. According to that investigator, it was a Tomáš P. of the district police department who caused the soldier's death by kneeling on his neck and suffocating him.
That officer refused to give testimony in court. In a statement he expressed regret for the fact that the soldier died as a consequence of the police intervention.
Tomáš P.'s statement said he did not believe himself guilty of the soldier's death because he "proceeded in accordance with the law". His defense attorney insists her client behaved in accorance with the directives on police procedure that were applicable at the time.
The Slovak State Prosecutor qualified the behavior of the young constable (he was 26 at the time of the incident) as negligent homicide, the sentence for which is between three and five years in prison. Because he has no criminal record, the court has proposed a sentence for the defendant of half a year in prison, suspended for 18 months.
The survivors of the deceased have sought financial compensation at the upper end of the amount prescribed by law. The first-instance court in Trebišov, however, did not share that opinion.
Last June that court acquitted the defendant and rejected all of the survivors' claims. "The brief suffocation was just one of the factors that caused the sudden, unexpected death of Ivan Koliščák," explained the sole judge ruling on the case at the Trebišov court, Jozef Nadzam, according to whom the intervening officer did not know the soldier was ill at the time of the intervention.
Nadzam took the opinions of three court experts into account when handing down his verdict. The daily newspaper Trebišovský korzár has reported on the case in detail.
Experts draw different conclusions
Expert witness Dalibor Kalaj told the court that the soldier's unexpected death occurred as a consequence of heart failure. According to expert witness Daniel Farkaš, however, the cause of death was violence, specifically, suffocation as a result of making it impossible to breathe, either by compression of the neck in the area of the larynx resulting in an inability to take in oxygen, or by pushing on the victim's chest.
A third court expert from the Institute for Forensic Medicine and Medical Expertise in the town of Martin clarified that the soldier had suffered from excited delirium syndrome after returning from deployment in Afghanistan and therefore sometimes behaved aggressively. That syndrome is common among army members who have experienced demanding, tense situations during military operations.
According to Farkaš, howver, excited delirium syndrome was not the cause of the soldier's death. That condition might have accelerated the entire process, but on its own it would never immediately lead to death.
Such a syndrome can only cause death in persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs. An autopsy proved that the deceased had not been under the influence of any such substances when he died.
According to the testimonies of several witnesses, the police officer allegedly pressed his knee to the soldier's neck for as long as five minutes. František Novomeský of the Institute for Forensic Medicine and Medical Expertise in Martin also criticized the methodological directives of the Slovak Police adopted in July 2009 that were in force at the time of the intervention in this case.
According to Novomeský, it is exceptionally dangerous to intervene against persons lying on the ground in the way that occurred in this case, i.e., by using a knee to the neck to cause suffocation. He said one cause of the soldier's death was the breakage of the cartilage in the area of the thyroid which, together with the suffocation, led to the slowing and eventual stopping of the victim's heart.
Appeals court verdict expected
Both the state prosecutor and the attorney for the survivors appealed the first-instance verdict. Currently the case is being reviewed by the Regional Court in Košice.
Last December closing arguments were made in the case and the verdict is expected. The appeals court has been working on it for two months now.
Juraj Kus, the survivors' legal representative, sees the main problem with the court proceedings as being that the defendant was just one of four officers who actively participated in the intervention. "That is proof that we are very far from the rule of law here. All of them participated in that intervention," he told the Slovak news server Pluska.sk.
Kus believes more than one crime was committed, both during the police intervention and also during the initial trial - not just the offense of homicide, but also abuse of the powers of a public official, failure to provide first aid, and perjury. The other police officers called as witnesses gave varying testimonies and could not even agree whether the victim's hands had been cuffed behind him or in front of him.
The restaurant where the incident happened was not far from where the soldier and his family members lived. News of the conflict reached his family quickly.
The soldier's brother and his 67-year-old father, Julius Koliščák, immediately went to help him when they got the news. By the time they entered the restaurant, Ivan was already on the ground.
"He was still moving as he lay there. One police officer was kneeling on his neck. His mouth was pressed to the ground, he couldn't breathe. I cursed at the police officer, but he held him down. I saw the boy couldn't breathe, he turned absolutely blue. I was standing just a meter away. I warned the police officer that he was suffocating the boy. I cursed at him and called him a murderer," said the dead soldier's father.
Police then detained both Julius Koliščák and the brother of the deceased overnight at the local police department. The father testified that he was not permitted to go to the toilet until it was morning.
Sad end to a military career
Ivan Koliščák survived military missions in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. It was a conflict with a waitress back at home that would seal his fate.
According to the police investigation, Koliščák assaulted one of the intervening police officers. His family reject the police claims that their son, who had completed demanding military training and served in a military mission just one year earlier, simply died of heart failure.
After Koliščák's death, the military barracks in Trebišov flew a black flag to mark his passing. Martina Balleková, a spokesperson for the Slovak Defense Ministry, confirmed that he was an experienced soldier.
"He worked as a gunner with the Mechanized Corps in Trebišov. He served in missions to Kosovo in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2012. He served almost 12 years in the Army," Balleková confirmed.
According to news server Gypsytv.eu, some of the police officers serving in Trebišov at the time of the incident felt very powerful and allowed themselves to use more force against people than they should have. "In the past they belonged to the skinhead movement and drove around starting fights with local Roma in town," a source who prefers to remain anonymous alleged to Gypystv.eu.
Parallels with the case of Ludovít K. of Kynšperk, Czech Republic
This case from Slovakia is similar in many respects to the scandal of the death of Ludovít K., a Romani man from Kynšperk, Czech Republic. He died in May 2012, also after a police intervention.
News server Romea.cz has regularly reported on developments in that case. Neither of these victims had any alcohol or drugs in their blood at the time of their deaths and both had been active athletes.
Neither victim was armed at the time of his death and none of the police officers intervening against these men ever suffered injuries as a result of the intervention. In both cases the police officers first handcuffed the suspect and then suffocated him as he lay on his belly.
In the Kynšperk case as well, the defendant's guilt or innocence will ultimately be decided by a third court expert, as the opinions delivered by the first two expert witnesses are diametrically opposed. Unlike the Czech courts, however, the Slovak courts are working more rapidly - at least in this particular case.
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