Moldava nad Bodvou: five years on and still no justice for Roma victims of police brutality
By Michal Zalesak
It is hard to believe that five years have already passed since the police raid in Moldava nad Bodvou. I remember learning about the events of 19 June 2013 from the media. I was personally outraged but unfortunately, not surprised. I started working for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) at the end of 2012, but I have already experienced similar cases since in 2012 several police actions took place in the municipalities of the Kežmarok district in North-eastern Slovakia. Just like the later raid in Vrbnica (April 2015) each of these actions involved the excessive use of violence and unlawful entry into dwellings. These raids were all carried out under the so-called Action Code 100, which is reasonably suspected to be discriminatory towards Romani communities.
When the NGOs operating in the Budulovská community asked us for help, we did not hesitate and we immediately facilitated legal representation for the victims. Despite the fact that there was no doubt that the intervening police officers might have acted unlawfully, the investigation began only after seven months which is a shockingly long time. Some people were not heard until much later.
Until February 2014, nobody from the Inspectorate of the Ministry of Interior was interested in the testimonies of victims and witnesses from Moldava. They "investigated" the incident only on the basis of the evidence received from the police forces. Nobody even bothered to inspect the crime scene. By that time all the victims’ injuries had healed and, naturally, with the passage of time it became increasingly difficult for the victims to recall these stressful events in detail.
Doubts as to whether the inspectorate was capable of an independent and impartial investigation of the events of June 2013 proved to be well grounded in due course. Irregularities in the testimonies of the victims were attributed to their "Roma mentality" which, according to the expert in the field of psychology and the investigating officer, is characterized by features as: a lack of self-discipline, neglect of commitments towards others, aggression, being asocial, and an inability to adapt to social standards, etc. It is scarcely credible, that anyone with a screed of integrity could have the gall to put their signature at the bottom of an expert opinion or decision in the pre-trial proceedings that contained such stereotypical and xenophobic expressions – prejudiced opinions which are far removed from what is commonly understood as expert assessment.
On the contrary, the testimonies of the intervening police officers were automatically taken as the unvarnished truth by the inspectorate. Even when several victims identified one of the police officers as a perpetrator during the identification procedure, the investigating officer stated that this did not prove anything. This begs the question: why carry out the identification if you completely disregard the outcome as meaningless? Would the procedure have been deemed irrelevant had the victims failed to identify the officer as a perpetrator?
Let's move further. After the inspectorate discontinued the proceedings and its decision was blessed by the supervising prosecutor, the case ended up before the Constitutional Court which, as the last domestic instance, had the chance to retrieve the credibility of the Slovak authorities. Having filed the constitutional complaint reflecting relevant case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), we hoped that no other decision would be issued than one stating that the rights of people from Budulovská had been violated. But no – the Constitutional Court took a different view. It saw no problem with the lack of independence of the inspectorate, or the inordinate delays starting the investigation, which it deemed to be sufficient and effective. When the Court did actually quote the case-law of the ECtHR, it was either in general terms (without taking into account similar cases before the Strasbourg court) or just inaccurately. The most striking feature of the decision was, however, that it virtually legitimized the use of term such as "Roma mentality" in criminal proceedings relating to persons of Romani origin.
At the end of this grim account of justice not done, it seems that there are few reasons for optimism. Investigation of the raid led nowhere, the victims were turned into perpetrators by the authorities, and police harassment of Roma persists (see e.g. the incident in Zborov). Nevertheless, I still hope that justice will be served at the ECtHR which, in similar cases where investigations were so flawed and full of errors, the Court has decided in favour of applicants. On the other hand, we cannot just wait passively on the Court to come to its decision. That's why we filed an anti-discrimination claim against the Ministry of Interior last September, challenging the ethnically biased policing against Romani communities in the Slovak Republic. The competent court has yet to carry out a single act in this matter…