Anti-Romani unrest in Bulgaria
11 July 2000
The Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project (HRP) reported on April 27, 2000, that the village of Mechka in the Pleven district of Bulgaria became the center of dramatic ethnic tensions after the shooting of an ethnic Bulgarian man. In the early morning of April 4, 2000, Nikola Timnevski, a 50-year-old resident of Mechka, was shot dead by unknown perpetrators who broke into his yard. On the way to the hospital in Pleven, shortly before he died, Timnevski allegedly described his attackers as of Romani origin. Following the incident, the police interrogated numerous Roma from Mechka. Two Roma — Shukri Mehmedov Rassimov and Ali Mehmedov Rassimov — have been detained on suspicion of murder.
On April 7, 2000, PARI daily, a Sofia newspaper, protested against “Gypsy violence” in Mechka: “The inhabitants of Mechka village, some 600 people, organised protests against the Gypsy acts of violence, thefts and robberies they have to endure on a daily basis. Yesterday’s protest march was triggered by the latest murder in Mechka. A 50-year-old villager was killed by two Gypsies while they were trying to rob his house. Some 300 Gypsies live in one of the village neighbourhoods. None of them works and crime is their only way of making a living, according to mayor Kiril Kirilov. Over the last few years 300 different acts of violence have been committed including murderous acts. The regional police directorate sent 20 policemen to safeguard the protests for 48 hours.”
HRP monitored the situation in Mechka beginning on April 6 and established that following the murder, ethnic tension in the village escalated to a campaign for the expulsion of the Roma from the village. Following the attack, the Romani community, numbering about half of the village inhabitants, was subjected to daily threats of reprisals and expulsion by ethnic Bulgarians in the village. An initiative committee of ethnic Bulgarians circulated a petition to expel the Roma and started daily protests in front of the mayor’s office. Ethnic Bulgarians also blocked the highway between Pleven and Nikopol to further their demands. Romani villagers were not admitted to public facilities. Romani milk producers were forbidden to sell their products to the local delivery stations. On April 7, representatives of the HRP witnessed the owner of a shop in the center of Mechka refusing to sell food products to Emine Yumerova and Gyula Rassimova, Mechka Roma. The owner alleged that he was afraid to counter the consensual decision of the Bulgarian community to banish the Roma from the village. Emine Alieva and Gyulhanam Alieva told the HRP that beginning on April 4, the owner of a shop in Mechka refused to sell them food products. The owner of the shop allegedly stated that the mayor of Mechka had forbidden owners to sell goods to Roma. On April 10, the initiative committee of ethnic Bulgarians met with the mayor of Pleven, the chief of the Regional Directorate of Internal Affairs, and the deputy governor. At the meeting, representatives of the initiative committee allegedly pushed for the expulsion of all Roma from the village and for immediate action on the part of the local authorities to stop the impunity of the perpetrators of crimes in the village. On April 11, representatives of the HRP met with the First Police Department of Pleven, responsible for the village of Mechka. A police official admitted that there was no conclusive evidence confirming the allegation that the perpetrator of the murder was Romani. HRP expressed concern that the investigation was biassed, as it targeted only members of the Romani community. On April 12, representatives of HRP, the Confederation of Roma in Bulgaria and the United Roma Union, met with Mr Naiden Zelenogorski, mayor of Pleven. The Roma organisations insisted that local authorities bring together the two sides of the conflict and actively mediate between them. The HRP learned that a meeting between the initiative committee, police, prosecution and local administration had already been scheduled by the county administrator for April 13. None of the Romani community representatives had been invited. On April 13, after a protest demonstration organised by the initiative committee in Mechka, this meeting was held in the mayor’s office, attended by the initiative committee, the mayor of Pleven, the deputy governor of Pleven County, the chief of the Regional Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior, and representatives of the District Prosecutor’s Office and District Court. The only party on the side of the Roma of Mechka allowed to participate was the HRP representative. Other Romani organisations were allegedly blocked from entering the meeting by representatives of the initiative committee. At the meeting it was decided that twelve policemen would patrol the village of Mechka and the neighbouring villages until the tension subsided.
HRP notes that the case had been preceded by similar events in July 1998. On July 10, 1998, about 80 policemen from the Pleven police department raided the Romani neighbourhood in Mechka (see “Snapshots from around Europe”, Roma Rights, Summer 1998). According to officials from the Regional Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior of Pleven, the purpose of the police operation had been detention of criminal suspects. According to the HRP, at least 30 Roma were ill-treated and their households were damaged by the police. In the following days, ethnic Bulgarians from Mechka protested against the local Roma and called for their expulsion. The District Prosecutor’s Office of Pleven refused to open a criminal investigation for incitement to racial hatred despite the fact that it had been called for by the HRP.