Community violence against Roma in Montenegro and the inactivity of the state

05 January 1999

Branimir Pleše

On April 14, 1995, the Danilovgrad (south-western Yugoslavia) police received a criminal complaint indicating that a 15-year-old Romani boy had raped an underage non-Romani girl. That very night most Romani men residing in the Danilovgrad Roma settlement were arrested and taken to the police station for questioning. According to Dragan Preleviæ, attorney-at-law acting on behalf of the Roma, a Romani minor was accused of rape and coerced by the police into confessing to the crime. Subsequently, the police “advised” the arrested Roma to leave Danilovgrad with their families immediately because, as they said, they could not guarantee their safety. On the morning of April 15, 1995, all women and children in the Romani settlement — approximately fifty persons — left for Podgorica by bus. The men stayed on until an angry mob of non-Roma started destroying and burning their homes only a few hours later. Afraid to use public transportation, they found their way through the woods to the outskirts of Podgorica where they met up with their families.

Later on the same day, several hundred non-Roma residents of Danilovgrad gathered in the main square demanding that the local authorities expel all Roma from the town. Shortly afterwards the crowd left the square and headed towards the Roma settlement. In the presence of police, which stepped back and watched as the violence unfolded, the mob looted, destroyed and burnt houses, cars, and personal possessions of the Roma. As a result, seventy-four Roma, among them nineteen women and thirty-seven children, were left homeless. Several days after the event the local authorities cleared the rubble leaving no evidence of what had happened.

Following this incident eight Romani men with jobs in Danilovgrad were sacked by their employers for failing to report to work. This was done notwithstanding the fact that their very appearance anywhere in the Danilovgrad area would have endangered their lives: angered non-Roma searched the town and the surroundings for months, and the anti-Roma sentiment in Danilovgrad has not died down even to date. Eleven children of school age, now struggling for their very existence, by begging and doing odd jobs, had to stop going to school — an additional reason being that at present they do not have a registered place of residence which is a necessary precondition to enrol in any school in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At the same time, all of the Danilovgrad Roma, each of whom previously had social and health insurance, are now left with none, again as a consequence of the fact that they lost their jobs and do not have a registered place of residence. All are still in the outskirts of the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, where they live in conditions of abject poverty.

On April 18, 1995, the Danilovgrad police issued a press release regarding the whole incident specifically stating, among other things, that a number of non-Roma persons attacked and “completely destroyed” a whole Roma settlement including “family houses, personal possessions, automobiles, agricultural appliances as well as cattle provisions”.1 Following the incident the police arrested twenty persons. However, on the basis of the police complaint filed with the Danilovgrad Prosecutor’s office on April 17, 1995, on May 4, 1995 the Danilovgrad Public Prosecutor brought charges against only one of the numerous individuals involved in the anti-Roma violence. Besides, what he was charged with was the non-racially motivated crime of “endangering public safety”. The maximum punishment for this crime is five years in prison. During the investigation many witnesses were heard, most of them police officers, who described the destruction in detail. Nevertheless, none of the statements given by the police officers were incriminating for the only suspect. Finally, on January 23, 1996, the Public Prosecutor dropped the pending charges against him for lack of evidence. In direct violation of Article 60 of the Yugoslav Criminal Procedure Code, the Roma victims were not informed in any way of the court decision of February 8, 1996 to terminate the proceedings. This made it impossible for them to act themselves as Private Prosecutors in their own cases, and to continue with gathering evidence and the prosecution of the case.

On September 6, 1996, 74 Danilovgrad Roma filed a civil claim for damages, pecuniary and non-pecuniary alike, with the first instance court in Podgorica. The total average claim per plaintiff was equivalent to about 100,000 US dollars. The pecuniary damages claim focused on the complete destruction of all property belonging to the plaintiffs, while the non-pecuniary damages claim was based on the pain and suffering of the plaintiffs associated with the fear they were subjected to, the violation of their honour, reputation, as well as other personal rights such as freedom of movement and the right to choose their own place of residence. The plaintiffs addressed these claims against the Republic of Montenegro and cited Article 180(1) of the Federal Law on Obligations which explicitly states that the state is responsible for damages “arising out of death, bodily injury, or destruction of property of a natural person, caused by an act of violence or an act of terrorism, as well as for damages resulting from public demonstration or protests, which its organs were obliged to prevent”. According to attorney Dragan Preleviæ, in Montenegro the initial hearings in civil cases are usually scheduled within one month of the filing of the claim. For this case, however, it took nine months and a lot of extra effort before the first hearing was held on June 6, 1996. In the meantime attorney Dragan Preleviæ addressed numerous domestic and international bodies, including the Belgrade office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. He was urging them to pressure the Montenegrin authorities to proceed with this case without further delay. More than three and a half years after the incident, the proceedings for damages are still pending before the first instance court. There are not even chances for a speedy conclusion: the next trial date at present is still unscheduled.

On August 15, 1996, eight Roma who were sacked by their employers for failing to report to work, filed a law suit requesting that the court repeal the decision on the basis of which they were fired and they be allowed to return to work. Throughout the proceedings the plaintiffs argued that they felt their lives would be endangered had they come to work so soon after the incident. On February 26, 1997, the Podgorica first instance court rendered its decision which dismissed the claims of the plaintiffs on the grounds that they were absent from work for five consecutive days without lawful justification. In doing so the court cited Article 75 paragraph 2 of the Federal Labour Code which inter alia provides that “if a person fails to report to work for five consecutive days without proper justification his employment will be terminated”. On June 11, 1997 the plaintiffs appealed this decision and almost five months later, on October 29, 1997, the second instance court in Pogorica quashed the first instance ruling and ordered a retrial. The reasoning underlying the second instance decision was based on the fact that the plaintiffs were not properly informed of their employer’s decision. At present, the retrial has been concluded. The plaintiffs and a number of witnesses were reheard by the court. Attorney Dragan Preleviæ said that he and his clients are now awaiting the judgement.  

Attorney Preleviæ, the Humanitarian Law Center (a human rights NGO from Belgrade), and the ERRC have agreed to co-ordinate their efforts in order to see that justice be done and the victims afforded redress. One possible legal action presently under consideration is to submit the case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

 The article in question is Article 164 paragraph 1 of the 1993 Montenegrin Criminal Code which states the following: ”Who by means of fire, flooding, explosion, poison or poisonous gas, ionic or radioactive radiation, mechanical force, or some other dangerous act or means threatens the life or safety of others or substantial property of others, will be punished by a prison sentence from six months to five years.” [Unofficial translation by the author]

 If the public prosecutor decides to dismiss a criminal complaint, or to drop the charges after instituting proceedings, as had happened in the instant case, the Yugoslav Criminal Procedure Code provides for a possibility for the victim to assume the capacity of a private prosecutor and thus take over the prosecution of his case. To do so, however, the victim must institute proceedings within eight days of receiving written information from the prosecutor of the decision to dismiss his complaint, or from the court of the decision to drop the charges if proceedings were already instituted (Article 60 paragraphs 1 and 2). It should be noted that if criminal proceedings were already instituted, the decision to drop the charges is actually taken by the prosecutor, but giving notice of this decision is up to the court. If the victim receives no such notice, but learns of the fact in another way he may then assume the capacity of private prosecutor only within three months of the decision of the prosecutor not to prosecute or to subsequently drop the charges in already initiated proceedings (Article 60 paragraph 4). The most obvious danger here is that if the three month period is exceeded, as had also happened in the instant case, the victim loses all possibility of individually continuing with the prosecuting of the case.

The Yugoslav Federal Law on Obligations was enacted in 1976 and is still in force in both Serbia and Montenegro as two constituent republics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Endnote:

  1. Danilovgrad Police press release dated April 18, 1995.

 

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