Discrimination in the Slovak Judicial System
07 May 2002
Two recent cases in Slovakia – one in which Roma were victims, another in which a Romani man was the alleged perpetrator – illustrate that Roma suffer discrimination in the Slovak criminal justice system. On February 20, 2002, trial began in Bratislava, Slovakia, in the case of a 20-year-old Romani man named Mario Bango, in connection with the March 10, 2001, killing on a tram in Bratislava of a non-Romani man named Branislav Slamko. Mr Bango allegedly fatally stabbed Mr Slamko after Mr Slamko accused his brother, Mr Eduard Bango, who was also in the tram at the time, of pick-pocketing. In accord with the decision of a Slovak prosecutor, upheld by the decision of a Bratislava District Court on November 20, 2001, Mr Bango goes to trial facing the charge of murder under Article 219 of the Slovak Criminal Code. If convicted, he could receive up to fifteen years imprisonment for the crime. Article 219 carries a minimum prison term of ten years.
The decision to prosecute Mr Bango for murder stands in stark contrast to decisions by Slovak prosecutory and judicial authorities in the premeditated killing by four racist skinheads of Ms Anastazia Balážová, a Romani woman, in her home in Žilina. On August 19, 2000, according to eyewitness testimony, as well as testimony by persons later accused in connection with the crime, four skinheads broke into a house known locally to be inhabited by Roma and began beating the inhabitants – who included Ms Balážová and four children – with baseball bats. Ms Balážová died two days later in the hospital, as a result of brain injuries incurred during the assault. During the attack, one of the perpetrators reportedly shouted, "keep quiet you black pigs, or I will kill you all."
On March 30, 2001, a jury of the Military Court of the Banská Bystrica District found Mr Peter Bandur, who was a member of the Slovak military at the time of the killing, guilty of crimes including racially motivated bodily harm (Article 222 of the Slovak Criminal Code) and violation of the freedom of the home (Article 238 of the Slovak Criminal Code) and sentenced him to a total of seven years incarceration. However, the court ordered that Mr Bandur serve three-and-a-half of the seven years in a reformatory, while he would be on probation for the remaining three-and-one-half years. The other three defendants were tried by a first instance district court in Žilina on August 30, 2001, and were given lenient sentences ranging from two-and-a-half to five years of effective imprisonment: Twenty-two-year-old Mr Pavel Hrčka was sentenced to five-year jail term for bodily harm. The court ordered that he serve an effective sentence of only two-and-a-half years, with the rest of the sentence served as probation. Twenty-six-year-old Mr Pavol Kozák was sentenced to a five-year jail term for violation of the freedom of the home. As Mr Kozák had a prior criminal record, the court ordered that he serve the full sentence. Twenty-two-year-old Mr Marian Skaličan was sentenced to a three-year jail term, for violation of the freedom of the home, and was ordered to serve the full sentence.
The court did not recognise racial motivation in the actions of any of the men, though the Slovak Criminal Code makes explicit provision for racially-motivated bodily harm, and the prosecutor had specifically recommended applying a relevant Criminal Code article. In a written opinion in the case, the presiding judge stated that, with respect to the actions of Mr Hrčka, although he had been proven to be a "sympathiser of the movement Skinheads," and had confessed in court to animosity toward Roma, the court could not find that when he broke into Ms Balážová's house and beat her to death he had acted out of racial hatred because, inter alia, "[...] the fact of being a sympathiser of the movement Skinheads, and the fact that he does not like Roma, cannot be regarded as an expression of racial animosity [...]" and "[i]t was not shown that prior to the event, the accused had sought out a situation in which he could purposefully harm the home, property or life of members of the Romani ethnic group."
A district prosecutor in Žilina subsequently filed an appeal to the Regional Court of Žilina. On November 20, 2001, the appeals court ruled that the accused persons had committed the crime of racially motivated bodily harm: Mr Kozák was found guilty of crimes including racially motivated bodily harm under Slovak Criminal Code Article 222(1 and 2b); Mr Skaličan was found guilty of crimes including racially motivated bodily harm under Slovak Criminal Code Article 221(1 and 2b); Mr Hrčka was found guilty of racially motivated bodily harm under Slovak Criminal Code Article 221(2). However, the appeals court failed to alter to any great degree the sentences handed down by the first instance court. The appeals court issued the following sentences: Mr Hrčka was ordered to serve four years; Mr Kozák was ordered to serve five years; and Mr Skaličan was ordered to serve three years imprisonment respectively.
The amended ruling in the killing of Ms Balážová is dramatically more lenient than the verdict recommended in the prosecution of Mario Bango, although the former case appears to be a serious premeditated racially motivated killing. A raw comparison of the recommendations of prosecutors in connection with the two cases indicates that ethnicity may have played a key role in sentences sought: Prosecutors in the killing of Ms Balážová by racist skinheads never sought convictions under Criminal Code articles more severe than those pertaining to "bodily harm" (Articles 221 and 222 of the Slovak Criminal Code); prosecutors in the killing of a non-Romani man by Mario Bango, a Romani man, have been unwavering in their determination to see Mr Bango prosecuted for murder. Absent accurate data on sentencing disparities in the Slovak judicial system – to date unavailable from official Slovak sources – monitors of the situation of Roma in Slovakia will be able to rely only on comparisons such as those suggested by internationally infamous cases such as Bango/Slamko and Balážová.