Czech Republic: Investigation into Romani man's death continues as interethnic gulf widens
Last fall was marked for thousands of Romani people in the Czech Republic by the mysterious, still-unclarified death of a young man, Miroslav Demeter, in a pizzeria in Žatec. During 20 demonstrations and memorial assemblies around the country and abroad, Romani people took to the streets with the aim of expressing their opinion that the case must be properly investigated.
The national media, of course, reported almost nothing about the case. At that time the Czech media were following, for weeks, from every angle - and quite correctly - the case of Jiří Brady, a former prisoner of the Auschwitz extermination camp who has long lectured on the Holocaust.
The Office of the Czech President first announced to Mr Brady that he would be given a state honor, and then ultimately did not give him one. After Žatec, though, the interethnic tension in Czech society was so taut it could have been cut with a knife, even if the media's focus was elsewhere.
This long wait for the results of the investigation into Mr Demeter's death is intensifying the interethnic gulf. News server Romea.cz is basically the only media outlet to have reported on this case over time.
Immediately after Mr Demeter passed away, a forensic expert issued a preliminary, one-sentence autopsy report stating that his death "was not due to a third party". It was only under pressure from the Romani community and various Czech and international organizations for human rights protections that the criminal police ultimately allowed the case to be investigated as one of suspicion of negligent homicide, and now we are in the third month of waiting for the results of that investigation.
Investigation without charges
Using the money raised from around the country, the parents of the deceased immediately retained the Prague attorney Jan Pacovský. Before the deceased was buried in the village of Lenešice near Louny, the family's legal representative had the already-autopsied body of the youth, transferred to Prague, where it was examined by a different forensic expert again.
At this moment, that expert is comparing his conclusions with the final report of the local forensics experts from the Ústecký Region. The next step is for him to provide detectives with a second opinion.
Representation of the children of the deceased, who have lost their father but are not entitled to compensation, has been taken up by Markus Pape, who for several years has represented the Romani victims of serious racist attacks. Both he and attorney Pacovský, for reasons of confidentiality, refuse to comment on the case until the investigation file is closed.
A similar approach has been chosen, for now, by police representatives as well. Their perspective is not being heard in the media.
At the beginning of January, a report on the case was published by the news server a2larm.cz. Its author cites the final autopsy protocol from Masaryk Hospital in Ústí nad Labem, which reportedly states the cause of death as heart failure.
According to that protocol, long-term drug use caused the overall deterioration of Mr Demeter's organism and his subsequent death. The slight injuries caused to the body of the deceased had no influence on his death, according to the protocol.
Those injuries were said to have been caused either by blows of "lesser intensity" or by pressure applied during the pacification of Mr Demeter after he disrupted the operation of the restaurant through his confused behavior. A2larm points out that the autopsy also found "aspiration of the stomach contents into the airways", but without further specification of the cause of the aspiration.
The reporter for A2larm is also disturbed by discrepancies between the times recorded for the ambulance's travel, according to which "it arrived at the pizzeria at 19:18, Miroslav's body was transported from the scene at 19:43, but his death occurred at 19:55", and the claim by state police that Mr Demeter died inside the pizzeria, i.e., prior to being transported to hospital, which police believed the "escalation of the situation" required. However, according to reporting by news server Romea.cz., at 19:43 Mr Demeter was merely transported from the inside of the pizzeria into the ambulance parked outside it.
Apparently attempts to revive him continued inside the ambulance. Those efforts were ended at 19:55 when the ambulance was still parked in front of the pizzeria.
The local forensic experts reportedly also found the deceased to have swelling of the brain. That is also a medical phenomenon that can cause death, but the experts did not note in their report anything about the cause of the brain swelling, nor about the claims of several witnesses that somebody intentionally kicked Mr Demeter.
Questions about the investigation of the case
All indications are that Mr Demeter was under the influence of drugs on 18 October 2016, that he behaved erratically, first running about in front of the pizzeria and then running inside it, where he bothered the customers. Does that fact justify the intensive intervention against him by those customers and the police who were called?
Would it not have sufficed to lead Mr Demeter out of the pizzeria, to surround him so he would not flee, and to wait for the arrival of police units who know how to pacify a person without harming him? It is precisely these ambiguities that have led to the police investigating further.
The criminal police in Žatec have identified almost all of the witnesses from the pizzeria, including those who pacified Mr Demeter. Approximately one month after his death, police began to summon them to make statements, during which the local detectives were the only investigators allowed to ask them questions, not the attorneys for the bereaved.
For that same reason, the attorneys for the bereaved are unable to verify whether the people who have given statements are the same as the persons visible on the video footage from the pizzeria. Such an approach is absolutely lawful in cases where the criminal prosecution of a specific suspect has not yet been begun.
However, this approach is not able to dispel the doubts remaining for the bereaved and the public. Many unanswered questions have arisen about the course of the investigation itself.
News server Romea.cz reported that the first official information released by authorities about the death was that Mr Demeter had died in front of the pizzeria when he was confusedly running around and allegedly suddenly collapsed to the ground. Do the police know who gave them such misleading information?
Was the scene of the crime immediately inspected by qualified investigators? Did the police confiscate all of the video recordings, and did they collect the eyewitness accounts fast enough?
There is also speculation about what the relationships are between the customers who pacified Mr Demeter and the local police who also intervened at the scene. Questions also remain about the communication of the police with Mr Demeter's family after his death.
News server Romea.cz reported that police did not immediately inform the family about their son's death after it happened. It is precisely for such tragic moments, however, that the police have crisis intervention officers who deliver such sad news to the bereaved.
Romani community silent after initially powerful protests
There is also a positive aspect to this entire case, though. For the first time since the 2009 arson attack in Vítkov, the Romani community mobilized powerfully.
The community gave a strong display of its willingness to fight for its rights, for example, the constitutional right to a fair trial. The family of the deceased continues to fight for justice.
At the time of his death, their son was permanently employed and had a clean criminal record, but his death remains unsolved. The question is whether the Romani community will reconcile itself to the outcome of this investigation so far and leave it up to the attorneys for the bereaved whether the case is ultimately solved - or whether the rest of the community will continue to fight as well.
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