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German authorities threaten Romani activist with jail sentence

7 November 2001

The ERRC is deeply concerned at reports it has received in recent weeks that German authorities intend to imprison Mr Rudolf (Rudko) Kawczynski for non-violent political activity in which he engaged in 1990. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mr Kawczynski organised a grassroots movement of several thousand Roma, primarily in western Germany, to resist their threatened expulsion to, first Yugoslavia and then, after that state collapsed, its successor states. During one period of the broad grassroots action, Mr Kawczynski, Roma threatened with expulsion, and various sympathizers marched for one month from regional capital to regional capital in western Germany, appealing for what they formulated as "the right of stay": the right to remain in Germany and not be forcibly removed. At no point did protesters breach the boundaries of civil disobedience and engage in violent activity. The protest was one of the high points of the Romani movement to date, in that Mr Kawynski successfully rallied Roma to fight for their rights, in the face of intense pressure by German authorities to comply with expulsion orders. In addition, the movement constitutes one of the most visible and coherent civic actions against the extremely restrictive anti-foreigner rules and practices prevailing then as now in Western Europe, and presently being adopted in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the case at issue, according to information received by the ERRC from Mr Kawczynski's Hamburg-based organisation Roma National Congress, in November 1990, Mr Kawczynski, a number of his Hamburg colleagues, and several hundred Roma from the former Yugoslavia attempted to cross the Swiss-German frontier into Switzerland in the German state of Baden-Wurtemmberg in several coaches. The Roma in the coaches were in most cases citizens of the former Yugoslavia who had had requests for asylum in Germany rejected by German authorities. The group intended to go directly to the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva and request asylum there. Since most of the persons concerned had been refused asylum status in Germany, however, they were refused entry into Switzerland. Mr Kawczynski and several colleagues were, however, admitted to Switzerland and they proceeded alone to the UNHCR office, leaving the coaches and the several hundred Roma at the Swiss-German frontier, blocking one lane of the border crossing. Police in the town of Lorrach charged Mr Kawczynski (and no one else from the group) with "coercion" (Notigung) - roughly the equivalent of "disturbing the peace" in English - for partially obstructing the border crossing (or for being responsible for a group which partially obstructed the border crossing). After Mr Kawczynski was found guilty as charged, the case was appealed several times and was finally brought before the German Constitutional Court in 1994, where it was still pending as of November 15, 2001. On October 20, 2001, however, Mr Kawczynski reportedly received a letter from a prosecutor in the town of Lorrach, the town in which he had originally committed the offence, instructing him that he would have to begin serving a fifty-day sentence. Mr Kawczynski was reportedly to begin serving the fifty-day jail sentence on November 19, 2001, although no final decision has been reached in connection with Mr Kawczynski's complaint to the Constitutional Court.

On November 12, 2001, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) sent a letter of concern about the case to German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroder, copied to the President of the German Parliament and the President of the German Constitutional Court. In its letter, the ERRC noted that the prosecution of Mr Kawczynski for such activities by German authorities constitutes an impermissible infringement on his right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, protected by Articles 19 and 21 respectively of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ERRC was concerned that Mr Kawczynski may soon become a prisoner of conscience in Europe's largest democracy. On November 16, Mr Kawczynski's attorney was reportedly informed orally by a public prosecutor that he would not, in fact, have to begin serving the sentence on November 19. On December 3, Mr Kawczynski reportedly received a letter from the public prosecutor's office stating inter alia that Mr Kawczynski would not be expected to serve the sentence until the Constitutional Court ruled on his complaint.

(ERRC, Roma National Congress, RomNews Network)

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