Extreme Rights Deprivation among Roma in Slovakia Leads to Unrest
On the evening of Tuesday February 24, 2004, the Slovak government ordered the largest mobilisation of its police and armed forces since 1989, in order to address the problem of unrest and a threatened state-wide strike among Roma in Slovakia. Although figures varied according to reports, according to information available as of February 26, on the territories of Košice, Prešov and Banska-Bystrica Counties, approximately 1600 police officers and 650 members of the army had been mobilised, with a further 350 soldiers put on active alert. Minister of the Interior Vladimir Palko was quoted by domestic media as having stated on the evening of February 24, "All police officers have had holidays suspended until further notice. At issue is the largest engagement of police forces since 1989. [...] Yesterday for the first time since 1989 water cannons were deployed and used." That week Slovak press has been dominated by headlines such as "This is War!"
The engagement of supplementary armed forces was also a response to a series of riots by members of the Slovak Romani community, during which crowds of Roma have looted and damaged food shops. The riots were triggered by changes to the social welfare system in early 2004 that led to reduction of social support. Many Roma were particularly affected by the changes to the social welfare law due to provisions cutting support for families with more than four children and the tying of a certain portion of the benefit to legal housing. These provisions were apparently specifically adopted to reduce the number of Roma on social welfare.
The ERRC jointly with the Center for Roma Rights in Slovakia (CRRS) conducted a field investigation in Trebišov on February 25, 2004 and Čaklov on February 26, 2004 into the events surrounding the riots and police response. In the case of Trebišov, human rights researchers interviewed numerous individuals in the Romani settlement, as well as the Director of the District Police Directorate, Mr Jozef Mlynarik. The interviews established that during the early evening hours of February 23, police engaged in significant force in response to a group of approximately fifty Romani individuals intent on looting a local grocery store, according to Director Mlynarik. Later the same evening, at around 8:00 PM, police engaged in response to the fact of a crowd of approximately four hundred Romani individuals organising to leave the Romani community in a group, possibly intent on violence, again according to Director Mlynarik. On February 23, police opened an investigation into crimes including theft, destruction of property, disturbing the peace and assault on a public official with respect to the events transpiring in and around the Romani settlement in Trebišov. The investigation was particularly related to the looting of a local shop and the subsequent violent engagement between members of the local Romani community and police, resulting in, according to Director Mlynarik, minor injuries to one police officer and damage to two police vehicles.
The ERRC and the CRRS heard extensive and plausible allegations from Romani inhabitants of the Romani settlement in Trebišov that, beginning in the very early morning hours of February 24, several hundred masked police officers (two hundred and forty police officers, according to Director Mlynarik) raided the Romani settlement and began a police action that lasted throughout the course of the daylight hours of February 24. During the course of this action, officers reportedly:
- Indiscriminately entered the houses of a very large number of Roma, without showing any form of warrant or other authorisation, and often violently kicking in doors;
- Struck violently with truncheons and also kicked a large number of Romani individuals, both in houses and in the open in the settlement;
- Beat and verbally abused Romani women, minors, and people with physical and mental handicaps; and
- Used electric cattle prods on the head, arms, chest and legs of a number of Romani individuals, again both in houses and in the open in the settlement.
According to Director Mlynarik, twenty-six or twenty-seven Romani individuals were detained during the raid and remained in detention at the time of the interview, between noon and 1:30 PM on February 25. According to Director Mlynarik, these had been turned over to prosecution services in relation to the crimes listed above. According to Roma who had been detained and subsequently released (such persons were not accounted for by Director Mlynarik), more than forty persons had been seen in police detention, and nearly all of them had been physically abused while in custody. In particular, males had been ordered to strip to the waste, face a wall with their hands pressed against the wall, and had been struck repeatedly in the midriff by police officers with truncheons. In addition, officers had jumped on their lower legs/calves with their boots. Director Mlynarik stated that officers had not indiscriminately entered dwellings, but rather had "chased identified perpetrators" from house to house. As such, according to Director Mlynarik, officers had remained within the boundaries of the law. Here Director Mlynarik's account of events and those of eyewitnesses interviewed by the ERRC and the CRRS differ completely.
In addition to a number of adult males who alleged that police had physically abused them during the raid on February 24 (and who were in many cases able to show fresh visible linear bruises apparently caused by police truncheons), the ERRC and the CRRS also interviewed:
- 16-year-old D.N., a mentally handicapped youth who, according to his own testimony, had been beaten both in his home and in public by officers with truncheons, and had also been subjected to electric shocks to the head, arms, forehead and stomach from a cattle prod while lying face-down on the floor of his home as well as in the yard in front of the apartment block where he lives with his family. D.N. had also been detained for approximately two hours, physically abused in custody and forced to sign a form prior to his release which he neither read nor had read to him, and of the contents of which he was ignorant;
- 16-year-old P.D., who testified that policemen used an electric truncheon against him. His mother, Ms B.D. witnessed the incident;
- 14-year-old A.B., whom officers reportedly struck in the back with a truncheon;
- 16-year-old J.K., whom police officers struck in the stomach and sides with truncheons until he vomited.
- Ms L.K., who testified that police beat her three minor sons, two of whom are mentally handicapped; and
- 17-year-old I.D., who is pregnant, was kicked by a police officer, while she was carrying a baby in her hands.
The ERRC and the CRRS also interviewed Mr E.L., who testified that police broke into his house and started beating him and used an electric truncheon against him. Mr E.L. stated that he had been released from hospital several days previously where he had been treated for severe burns all over his body. The burns were still fresh at the time the ERRC and the CRRS spoke with him.
In addition to the above, a number of eyewitnesses interviewed by the ERRC and the CRRS alleged that officers were drunk during the raid, many alleged that they had used abusive language, and several stated that at one point they looked from the window of their apartment and saw officers in their yard "dancing".
The ERRC and the CRRS presented a summary of the information above to Director Mlynarik orally during a meeting on February 25, and requested that he open an investigation into the actions of police officers on the basis of very compelling indications that police officers had in a number of instances violated their mandate. Director Mlynarik declined to open such an investigation or to request that such an investigation be opened.
In the case of Čaklov, according to testimonies of Roma, on February 24, 2004, the shop assistant in the town's state-owned grocery store invited the Romani women in Čaklov to take items from the shop. The shop assistant had allegedly made an accounting shortfall of 118,000 Slovak crowns (approximately 2,900 Euro) and thought that she could justify it by blaming Roma for having committed thefts from her shop equaling this amount. Some thirty to forty Romani women went to the shop and peacefully left with a bag of unpaid groceries each. There was no damage to the shop. On February 25, 2004, the police stormed into the Romani settlement in the village and ran through the streets chasing Romani women with batons. Police cars drove aggressively at Romani inhabitants. A 3-year-old boy, A. G., was unfortunately in the way of a policeman. The policeman beat him about the head with his truncheon. The boy later received medical treatment for his injuries. The policeman later returned to the settlement and apologized for his actions. The police detained twenty-three women and two men on February 25, 2004, and returned on February 26, 2004 and detained a further fourteen Romani women. During the arrests, the police used abusive language and told the inhabitants, who were in their homes, that they would break down the house door unless they surrendered to the police. The police said that they had arrest and search warrants, but not a single document was reportedly shown during the two police raids. According to the testimonies of Roma, the police refused to give information to the close relatives of the detained people about the place where they had been detained as well as any other information about the detainees. A representative of the ERRC, together with the husband of one of the detainees, asked the Director of the Judicial Police in Vranou nad Toplou for information on the Roma in detention and details of the police action in arresting them. He refused to give any information.
According to information received by the ERRC from the Regional Judicial Police in Prešov, two Romani men and thirty-two Romani women from Čaklov were charged with robbery in an organised form. Aside from a pregnant Romani woman, a Romani woman with a 6-month-old child and a Romani man against whom the police had no evidence, all of the arrested Roma were being held in pre-trial detention. On April 8, 2004, the Roma from Čaklov were released from prison, following advocacy efforts by the ERRC, the CRRS, the League of Human Rights Advocates and the OSCE. As of May 7, 2004, a police investigation was ongoing.
On March 2, 2004, the ERRC and the CRRS communicated in writing to the Slovak General Prosecutor the findings of their field investigation into the events in several Romani communities in eastern Slovakia, and urged him to open an investigation into the acts of law enforcement officials to determine whether they have violated domestic and/or international law. In their communication, the ERRC and the CRRS urged the Slovak General Prosecutor to carry out an impartial and effective investigation into allegations of inhuman and degrading treatment of Roma; review apparently disproportionate criminal charges brought against a number of Romani individuals; ensure that any Romani persons placed in custody pending trial are detained in accordance to Slovak law and international human rights law; and ensure that Roma have effective access in practice to all fair trial guarantees provided under domestic and international law.
Later, while in Slovakia on March 6, the ERRC received information that a Romani man had gone missing following the February 24 police action in Trebišov. Mr Radoslav Puky's dead body was found on March 7 in the Ondava river near the Romani settlement in Trebišov. According to CRRS research into the death of Mr Puky, following the police raid in the early morning hours of February 24, Mr Puky was seen with broken ribs and a broken hand, reportedly the result of a beating by about ten police officers. Later that morning, Mr Puky was also reportedly among a group of Roma who ran out of the settlement towards a nearby field, being chased by a large number of police officers. CRRS research revealed that a group of Roma were caught in the field by about fifty armed and masked officers, ordered to the ground and told to place their hands above their heads. The police reportedly beat many Roma and some of the Roma caught by police were tied up beside a nearby bridge. Mr Puky was not seen following the police action and there was no record of Radoslav Puky having been detained. A police search for Mr Puky was unsuccessful. On March 6, a group of Roma from Trebišov performed a search for Mr Puky after receiving received information that the beaten body of a dead man was bound to a tree in the local park "Adam and Eve". On March 7, Mr Puky's body was found in about fifty centimetres of water in the Ondava River, about 25 metres from where the police had held and beaten the Roma earlier, the CRRS reported. The body was, according to the CRRS, not bloated as the body of a drowned person would be. According to a death certificate, dated March 7, 2003, Radoslav died as a result of drowning. Additional information on the situation of Roma in Slovakia is available on the ERRC's Internet website at: http://www.errc.org/publications/indices//slovakia.shtml. (CRRS, ERRC)