In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Human Rights Prospects for Roma in Ukraine

21 July 2005

István Fenyvesi1
This spring I travelled to Ukraine several times, and when I spoke to non-Roma about human rights related issues, many of them said: "Oh yeah, I have been beaten by police. So what? This happens. Anybody can be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Ukraine is known among human rights activists as a country with a high level of police brutality compounded with high level of impunity of the perpetrators. Against this general background, it is not surprising that Roma in Ukraine are also suffering frequent and unremedied police violence. Widespread racial prejudice against Roma, including law enforcement officials, increases the vulnerability of Roma who are targeted by the police often solely on the basis of their ethnic background. The problems of police brutality are aggravated by lack of trust in the justice system resulting in widespread acquiescence in police abuse.

Ukraine has ratified most of the UN human rights treaties as well as the Council of Europe conventions. Some important omissions in the state's international record include the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the abolition of the death penalty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) to establish a system of regular visits by independent international and national bodies to places of detention in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Protocol 12 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms on the general prohibition of discrimination, and the Revised European Social Charter.

Despite international legal obligations, however, the state of human rights in Ukraine gives cause for a very serious concerns.

Police abuse, although by far not the only pattern of gross violations of Roma rights, is definitely the most widespread and violent type of abuse of Roma rights. It is no wonder that fear of the police is so widespread among Roma in Ukraine. For the majority of the Romani population this fear is not merely instinctive: it comes from experience of interaction with police. This experience varies from torture and ill-treatment in police custody, through fabrication of incriminating evidence, daily harassment and intimidation by the police and racist anti-Romani speech. Among the most vicious examples of police brutality against Roma in Ukraine was the 2001 incident in Kremenchug during which police set Roma on fire in their own house.2 For the justice system in Ukraine, however, these offenses are non-existent. Perpetrators usually avoid justice and continue to commit human rights violations with the confidence that the "system" would never fail them. Practice shows that the worst that a police officer who had violated the law abusing the rights of a Romani individual can expect is to be demoted or simply transferred from one police department to another. In the Kremenchug case, for instance, despite strong evidence against a police major, no investigation against him had been launched and continues to perform his duties in a different police department of the same city.

In the CIS countries, Ukraine has the largest number of Romani organisations who are part of a civil rights movement in Ukraine. Many of these organisations react to instances of human rights violations in their respective communities. Some immediately contact the relevant authority trying to "settle" the problem, others write letters of concern. Romani organisations in Ukraine have sent numerous letters of concern in the past years to prosecutors, police chiefs, and in very serious cases, to the General Prosecutor and/or the Ombudsperson, alleging racist violence committed by police officers. Regardless of the evidence provided to support the allegations, the respective authorities invariably discarded the allegations. The authorities would normally reply to letters of concern twice: in the first reply they would inform the organisation or person who addressed them that they have instructed the relevant (normally local) authority to undertake an investigation into the allegations; the second letter would arrive a couple of weeks afterwords informing about the results of the investigation. The responses are close to identical and read as follows:

Please be informed that on your request the XXX authority carried out an investigation into allegations of police abuse against XXX. The investigation found no unlawful actions or behavior of police officers, all of whom acted in accordance with the law.

An identical reply was recently sent by Uzhgorod City police department following an abusive raid in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine which took place in the early morning hours on January 20, 2005. On that day, at approximately 6:00 AM, police officers and members of the special police force "Berkut", wearing masks and carrying truncheons, broke into the homes of nearly all Romani families in the Radvanka and Telmana Street Romani neighbourhoods in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod in order round up the men and take their fingerprints. Many Roma subsequently reported that they were sleeping when the officers started banging on their doors and windows. The officers reportedly broke forcefully into the homes if doors were not opened immediately. Upon entering the homes, police officers and members of "Berkut" ordered all adult Romani men – including elderly and ill – and teenage boys to get quickly dressed and get on the bus which then took them to the city police station for fingerprinting3.

Romani Yag, a leading local Romani organisation and partner to the ERRC, sought explanation from the chief of the city police, who made a verbal promise to investigate the allegations. Romani Yag also invited the police officials for a roundtable discussion involving Romani leaders and the ERRC on the one hand, and police officials on the other. Although one hour late, on February 8, 2005, the Deputy of the Uzhgorod City police Mr Mikhailo Turjanytsa and the Head of the Department of Fight against Criminality Mr Volodymyr Shelepets attended. In their speeches, the police officials explained the January 20th raid as a necessary "prophylactic" action which was carried out as a consequence of the increased criminality among the Romani population. The latter was supported with statistical data. For instance, according to Mr Shelepets who claimed to have thoroughly prepared before the meeting, 2.9 percent of all crimes committed in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine in 2004 were committed by Roma. In the same time, it was said at the very beginning, the proportion of the Romani population to the majority population makes approximately 3 percent. Another example provided by the Head of the Department of Fight against Criminality, was also taken from the statistical data, and claimed that out of 37 killings committed in 2004, 2 were committed by Roma. To the question whether similar "prophylactic" work was carried out in those non-Romani neighbourhoods where the rest, 92.1 percent of the crimes were committed, Mr Shelepets explained to the participants in the round table discussion that the police primarily checks those individuals who have criminal record, drug-addicts, and underage persons.

To the official letter of concern that was sent by Romani Yag to the police authorities following the raid, the official response that arrived several weeks afterwards was, not surprisingly, a standard response.

In a response to the letter of concern of "Devlesa Romale", a Romani organisation in Vinnitsa, western Ukraine, regarding racial profiling of Roma, in particular frequent fingerprinting, the authorities' reply matched the standard response, but also contained an interesting second part in which the authorities stated that "certain police officers were subsequently brought to responsibility". No further explanation.

Since the beginning of 2004, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has been implementing the project "Defending the Rights of Roma in Ukraine and Ensuring Their Access to Justice" financed by the European Commission. The project provides support for the development of a network of Romani human rights NGOs across Ukraine capacitating Romani organisations to undertake human rights work as well as seeks to challenge widespread patterns of human rights violations against Roma in Ukraine through strategic litigation and legal defence. Also important components of the project are monitoring, capacity building, training for Romani NGO activists in human rights activities, advocacy, roundtables with authorities, trainings for judges and prosecutors and, in partnership with the International Center for Policy Studies, a Kyiv-based thinktank, development of anti-discrimination legislation and a comprehensive Roma programme in Ukraine.

Strategic litigation as a concept is still very new and enjoys little support and understanding in Ukraine, just as in any other ex-Soviet republics. The current system of justice has still not overthrown the heritage of the Soviet times, especially practices such as the so-called "telephone law", which made possible the case to be decided by telephone contacts with influential people. Another pillar of that old system had been and still is the bribe – a universal means to avoid justice altogether or ensure a more lenient punishment.

Roma, for historical and societal reasons, have limited access to the first pillar, the "telephone law", as too few of them have contacts with influential people. As for the other pillar, those few Roma who can afford to pay bribes, apparently do so as it is a proven means of settling the issue fast. Those Roma who can rely neither on the first nor on the second pillar make up the majority of Romani population in Ukraine. However, Roma in Ukraine do not trust the system of justice or any authority staffed with non-Roma. This sense of mistrust is reinforced by strong tendencies of scapegoating Roma. Police use Roma to "make" statistics about its successes in fighting crime while media increases the sale of dailies through publishing sensational materials about Romani drug-dealers and Romani swindlers.

In these circumstances, Roma feel that they can only be on the losing side. That is why, very often, instead of choosing the official channels to claim their rights, Roma, similarly to non-Roma, when they can afford, chose the easier and faster way of steering clear of the system of justice and opt for out-of-court settlements. Under such circumstances, a public interest litigation project reminds of a swimmer who is swimming against the stream of a fast mountain river. An additional difficulty is that it is also extremely difficult to find competent and experienced defence lawyers who are willing to risk their position and image in their town by challenging this system… on behalf of Roma.

While challenging practices which undermine the rule of law in Ukraine may seem an unrewarding task at this point of time, some recent events have indicated that the current political elite may be more open to listening to human rights activists. On April 12, 2005, for example, for the first time, a parliamentary hearing "On the situation of the Romani people", organised by the Human Rights Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament, was held. Even though it would be naĂŻve to believe that such a hearing in itself will bring about real changes for Roma, it is an extremely positive sign of the political will of the current political elite which, for the first time, expressed readiness to listen to the problems Roma in Ukraine face.

Another promising sign is growing human rights awareness of Roma themselves. More and more organisations and individual Romani activists express an interest in joining the human rights movement, in doing something about their worrying human rights situation. The litigation project, even though still slowly, is taking on speed. More and more Romani victims of human rights abuse do decide to challenge the abuse in courts. And, finally, more and more Roma begin to understand that they have no other real chance of achieving justice and societal change but through litigation in domestic and possibly international courts, simply because they have become fed up with always being in the wrong place.


  1. Istvan Fenyvesi is an ERRC Officer responsible for the ERRC activities in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
  2. See details of the case at:
  3. See details at:

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