The United Nations CAT scrutinizes Hungary and Yugoslavia
05 January 1999
Veronika Leila Szente
Last November the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) was in session in Geneva. The ERRC submitted to that session a document listing cases relevant to the Committee's consideration of compliance by Hungary and Yugoslavia with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment1.
The ERRC argued that the cases described in the document2 are part of a pattern of police misconduct directed at Roma which is inconsistent with State Party obligations under the convention, in particular with Articles 10, 11, 12, 13 and 16. Under Article 10, the state has to ensure that education and information regarding prohibition of torture be included in training of law enforcement and other relevant personnel; under Article 11 the state is obliged to keep interrogation rules, methods and practices under systematic review with the view of the prevention of torture; under Article 12 the state is obliged to ensure that all individuals enjoy the right to complain and have their case promptly and impartially examined by competent authorities; under Article 13 the state is obliged to ensure that all individuals enjoy the right to complain and have their case promptly and impartially examined by competent authorities; under Article 16, the state is obliged to undertake the prevention of acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in Article 1 of the Convention).
The evidence in the submission of recent, repeated and unremedied acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and/or punishment reflects systematic, official ill-treatment of Roma in Hungary and Yugoslavia, which — as was illustrated with specific references to published reports — has been extensively documented by such international monitoring organs as the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), the US State Department, and Human Rights Watch3.
While expressly disclaiming to offer a comprehensive survey of police violence against Roma in both countries, the ERRC submission listed 27 cases4 — fifteen in Hungary and twelve in Yugoslavia — which took place in the years 1992-1998. All of the cases concerned police abuse, ranging from insults and arbitrary arrests to severe physical mistreatment.
In five of the Hungarian cases, women were among the victims of abuse. One case concerned testimonies taken from five Romani prostitutes in Hajdúhadház in north-eastern Hungary in September 1997. The documented accounts revealed a consistent pattern of abuse by local police, including strip searches, confiscation of money, insults and beatings. Another case arose from a police action in Szombathely in western Hungary in February 1997, during the course of which Romani women (one of them pregnant) were allegedly subjected to physical abuse by police who sought to extract statements from them implicating a (male) suspect in a theft.
The documentation provided to CAT also includes a number of cases — one in Hungary, five in Yugoslavia — in which minors were subjected to abusive treatment by law enforcement officials. Some examples follow:
In the afternoon of September 2, 1998, in Novi Sad in northern Yugoslavia, a seventeen-year-old boy was reportedly forced to kneel down, then beaten with a truncheon during an interrogation. The boy was later released without being charged with any crime.
On the morning of January 14, 1998, in the town of Nis in southern Yugoslavia, police detained a fifteen-year-old boy at the local market, accused him of having stolen a pair of shoes, and brought him to the police station where they held him until midnight. During his detention, the boy was allegedly beaten approximately five separate times for periods of up to an hour each. Between the beatings, the boy's coat was removed and he was kept in a cold cell.
A third instance, reported in Valjevo in central Serbia, also in January 1998, involved three Romani men and one Romani minor, a sixteen-year-old boy. All four Roma were taken to the police station where they were held for several hours and physically mistreated in an effort to compel them to confess to possessing a gun.
In Novi Sad one morning in the spring of 1997, two police officers slapped and punched in the face a 16-year-old Romani, causing him to fall down. The officers continued kicking the boy as he lay on the ground, stopping only when a local Romani leader intervened.
In most cases, police who abuse Roma in Hungary and Yugoslavia act with full impunity. According to ERRC information, in none of the above mentioned cases have those responsible been brought to justice. Often out of fear, Romani victims are reluctant to file complaints. Even where the victims do come forward to seek remedies, only rarely do their complaints result in effective and thorough investigation, let alone convictions. Far more often, Romani complaints concerning police abuse in both countries are dismissed as ungrounded and investigations are suspended for alleged lack of evidence, or left indefinitely pending with no result.
Thus, a complaint concerning an incident of alleged police ill-treatment of two Romani men in north-eastern Hungary in January 1997 was quickly dismissed following an initial hearing in which one of the accused police officers claimed that the victims' medically documented injuries had been produced by falling off a bicycle. A police investigation has allegedly continued for a year without result following the filing of a complaint by 28-year-old Danilo Dimitrijević, a Romani man from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. The complaint alleged that police kept Dimitrijević in detention for three days, during which time they severely beat him and denied him food, water and toilet facilities. On March 31, 1998, Branko Kostić, a Romani man, filed a complaint alleging that a plainclothes police officer in Kragujevac in central Serbia had attacked and beaten him for no reason. Kostić has not heard from the prosecutor's office since.
Of the 27 cases listed in the ERRC submission, official complaints were filed in at least 12 of the 15 cases in Hungary, and in 6 of the 12 cases in Yugoslavia. Out of these 18 complaints, only two have resulted in a complete investigation, formal charges and a trial. In Yugoslavia, following the beating to death of a mentally retarded Romani man in December 1992, three police officers received prison sentences ranging from one to three years. In Hungary, following the severe beating of a Romani man in March 1995, three police officers were fined for official malfeasance. None of the three officers was suspended from duty.
At the CAT session in Geneva, Committee members voiced concerns and asked questions about alleged abuses of Roma during consideration of both government reports. In the case of Yugoslavia, the delegation was asked about "the large number of torture victims reportedly spread all over the country, especially Roma and Kosovans5", and about "alleged discrimination against and maltreatment of Romanys6".
Attention to abuse of Roma was more pronounced during the Committee sessions devoted to Hungary. All three UN press releases issued on the occasion on the Committee's examination of Hungary's report mentioned Roma7. Moreover, in its conclusions and recommendations on Hungary8, the Committee voiced concern over what it termed "persistent reports that an inordinately high proportion of detainees is roughly handled or treated cruelly before, during and after interrogation by the Police and that a disproportionate number of detainees and/or prisoners serving their sentence are Roma".
The Committee went on to recommend that the Hungarian government "take all necessary measures" to prevent and punish official ill-treatment of detainees, and requested it to, inter alia, include in its next report "all relevant statistics, data and information" on the number of complaints about ill-treatment, the proportion they represent in relation to the total number of cases investigated, and, in particular, the proportion of complaints made by Roma, as well as the proportion of detainees and prisoners of Romani origin. In its next report, Hungary was also requested to provide information concerning the number and proportion of cases discontinued by prosecutors involving allegations of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment; the reasons, if any, for such discontinuance; and the measures taken to ensure the complete impartiality and effectiveness of investigations of such allegations.
- The CAT is the United Nations Treaty Body which oversees compliance with the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Committee, composed of ten internationally recognised experts, meets twice a year in Geneva. The Convention, which opened for signature and ratification in 1984 and came into force in 1987, was ratified by Hungary in 1987, and by Yugoslavia in 1991. States Parties are to submit an initial report within one year of the entry into force of the Convention, and supplementary reports every four years thereafter. The November 1998 session marked the first time that the Committee reviewed Yugoslavia (the initial State Party report was due in 1992, but was submitted only in April of 1998). Hungary has been examined on two prior occasions, the last time in April 1993.
- "Cases of Relevance to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Hungary and in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Submitted by the European Roma Rights Center, For Consideration by the United Nations Committee against Torture at its 21th Session on 11 and 17 November, 1998", November 6, 1998. The full text is available on the ERRC website at errc.org.
- The submission quoted specifically from CERD Concluding Observations on Hungary (CERD/C/304/Add.4), March 28, 1996; HRC Concluding Observations on Hungary (CCPR/C/79/Add.22), August 3, 1993; Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1998, 1998; U.S. Department of State, Hungary Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, January 30, 1998; and U.S. Department of State, Serbia-Montenegro Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, January 30, 1998.
- Several cases involved more than one victim.
- United Nations Press Release, "Committee against Torture Considers Report of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia", HR/CAT/98/30, November 11, 1998.
- United Nations Press Release, "Committee against Torture Concludes Consideration of Report of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia", HR/CAT/98/31, November 11, 1998.
- United Nations Press Releases, "Hungary Presents Report to Committee against Torture", HR/CAT/98/38, November 17, 1998; "Committee against Torture Issues Conclusions and Recommendations on Report of Iceland — Hears Responses of Hungary to Questions By Committee Members", HR/CAT/98/39, 17 November, 1998; and "Committee against Torture Issues Conclusions and Recommendations on Reports of the United Kingdom and Hungary", HR/CAT/98/42, November 19, 1998.
- United Nations Committee against Torture, "Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee against Torture — Hungary (Unedited version)", issued November 19, 1998.