The European Roma Rights Center In Action - Developments in Strategic Litigation

29 October 2003

Gloria Jean Garland1

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) continues developing strategic litigation in a number of important policy areas affecting Roma, including asylum and immigration issues, discrimination, and ongoing challenges before international tribunals to police brutality and unremedied violence committed against Roma.

Immigration and Asylum

In May 2003, the ERRC filed an emergency request to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a Kosovar Romani family facing expulsion from Denmark. According to Rule 39 of the Court's rules, if an applicant is facing a risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 of the Convention, the Court can make an interim request to a state to secure the applicant's safety until his or her application can be heard. In this case, the ERRC cited numerous reports prepared by international organizations such as the UNHCR and Amnesty International urging states not to compel minorities such as Kosovo Roma to return home against their will. According to a January 2003 UNHCR report, "Members of non-ethnic Albanian minorities originating from Kosovo continue to face security threats, which place their lives and fundamental freedoms at risk." The ERRC has asked the Court to indicate to the Danish government not to remove the family, which includes three children, until their full application can be considered. As of August 6, 2003, the Court had not yet ruled on the request.

In another asylum case, the ERRC filed a supplemental submission with the Belgian General Commissioner for Refugees on behalf of the family of František Baláž, a Romani family from Slovakia seeking political asylum in Belgium. Their mother, Anastazia Balážová, was brutally murdered by skinheads in her home in August 2000. After repeated attacks by skinhead groups in the town of Žilina, the family fled to Belgium and applied for asylum. In a letter to the General Commissioner urging the granting of refugee status to the Baláž family, the ERRC cited several incidents of skinhead violence in Slovakia and noted that the publicity attendant to the case had made the Baláž family a target of skinheads throughout the country. In its 2000 and 2001 accession reports, the European Commission identified "violence, notably at the hands of 'skinheads'," as a continued serious threat to Roma in Slovakia. On March 18, 2003, the General Commissioner issued a decision granting the political asylum request. The ERRC issued a press release welcoming the decision as "an important affirmation that European asylum systems are still, in some instances, capable of providing protection to refugees, despite intense pressure to contract the asylum right to the point of meaninglessness."2

In March 2003, the Court of Appeal in the United Kingdom considered the ERRC's challenge to the placement of British consular officials at the Prague Airport to pre-screen travelers to the United Kingdom. The ERRC claimed this practice violated the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and was also unlawful discrimination under the UK Race Relations Act of 1976. The Court rejected the claim, with a vigorous dissent by Lord Justice Laws as to the discrimination aspect. The Court has taken the unusual step of authorising an appeal to the House of Lords.

As European countries take increasingly harsh stands on immigration and asylum requests, the ERRC will continue to challenge those practices with respect to Roma before both domestic and international tribunals.

Discrimination

Educational discrimination has long been a priority for ERRC strategic litigation. In April 2000, the ERRC filed an action with the European Court of Human Rights against the Czech Republic challenging the disproportionately high placement of Romani children in schools for the mentally retarded, most of whom suffered from no mental handicap. This case is still pending. In May 2003, the ERRC filed a pre-application letter to begin proceedings against Croatia before the European Court to challenge the practice of placing Romani children in separate Roma-only classes within the regular schools.3 The ERRC continued its legal challenges to educational discrimination by filing a claim before the Sofia Municipal Court in Bulgaria on May 21, 2003, against the Ministry of Education, the City of Sofia, and a Roma-only school located in the heavily Roma-populated Fakulteta District.4 The ERRC and local counsel filed the lawsuit after academic testing revealed dramatic differences in the performance of Romani children in integrated schools and Romani children in segregated Roma-only schools. The ERRC's position is that the only way to insure equal education opportunities for Romani children is to require states to integrate public schools. This will remain a high priority with respect to the ERRC's future litigation efforts.

On April 2, 2003, the ERRC and the Belgrade-based non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) jointly brought a complaint against Serbia and Montenegro before the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), challenging the refusal of a discotheque in Belgrade to allow Roma entrance. This is the first case filed by the ERRC against Serbia and Montenegro with the CERD. It joins a large number of other cases pending before domestic courts challenging discriminatory practices in access to places of public accommodation such as restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, movie theaters, banks and so on.

Police Brutality

Challenges to police brutality and to unremedied violence against Roma by skinheads and others remains a high priority with respect to ERRC litigation. In the first half of 2003, the ERRC has filed three new cases in these areas before the European Court of Human Rights. Stoica vs. Romania involves the beating by police of a 14-year-old Romani boy who had undergone head surgery prior to the beating. Koky vs. Slovakia arises from a racist attack by members of an extremist skinhead group on a Romani settlement near the village of Ganovce-Filice which destroyed property and injured several of the settlement's inhabitants. Prosecutors suspended the investigation and the perpetrators were never brought to trial. Gergel vs. Slovakia involves a Romani man severely beaten by police at the Zvolen railway station.

The ERRC has secured significant victories before the European Court of Human Rights in cases involving police brutality and violence against Roma (Assenov v. Bulgaria, Velikova v. Bulgaria, Anguelova v. Bulgaria). Nonetheless, such violence remains a serious and ongoing threat to the human rights of Roma in many countries in the region and the ERRC will continue to challenge such practices before domestic and international courts.

Endnotes:

  1. Gloria Jean Garland is Legal Director of the European Roma Rights Center.
  2. European Roma Rights Center. "Slovak Romani Family Receives Asylum in Belgium". Press release dated April 14, 2003.
  3. For more information see European Roma Rights Center. "Legal Action at the European Court of Human Rights Challenges Educational Discrimination of Romani Children in Croatian Primary Schools". Press release dated May 13, 2003.
  4. For more information see European Roma Rights Center. "ERRC Lawsuit Challenges Education Discrimination Against Romani Children in Bulgarian Schools". Press release dated May 20, 2003.

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