Roma-police seminars in Bulgaria

02 April 1998

One approach to addressing the issue of police abuse is to put pressure on governments through the media and/or through advocacy in domestic and international fora. Another strategy is to seek legal remedy in courts of law in individual cases of abuse. Often human rights organisations working to combat police abuse attempt to combine strategies to achieve legal remedy in individual cases, decrease general trends of police abuse and, in the best of cases, mobilise and educate a community about their fundamental rights. Some organisations which advocate on behalf of the rights of Roma in Eastern Europe have, additionally, attempted the strategy of meeting directly with the police on a regular basis to challenge in police practice. Savelina Danova, Executive Director of the Sofia-based organisation Human Rights Project describes here the effects, strengths and weaknesses of such an approach.

Since its establishment in 1992, the Human Rights Project (HRP) has undertaken to build links with state institutions in order to enhance the impact of our goals as a human rights organisation. The specific nature of our work as advocates for Roma rights, and our goals of fighting discrimination against Roma and promoting the rule of law in Bulgarian society, have necessitated a day-to-day interaction with the Bulgarian police. In the early years of post-communist Bulgaria, law-enforcement institutions regarded individuals who expressed concerns about police brutality in Bulgaria as people who work against national interests. Under the conditions of still-powerful totalitarian reflexes and weak democratic mechanisms in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, such interaction was tense and confrontational, and dialogue often stalled at inception.

The HRP was among the first human rights groups after 1989 that claimed police brutality existed and publicised instances of police brutality against Roma in Bulgaria. As a result, we were wiped off the list of respected citizens whose statements and concerns deserved consideration. Disregard for official violence and an unwillingness to acknowledge the impunity with which public officials violate the fundamental rights of Roma was demonstrated by the National Police when they refused to participate in the international conference on „Police Brutality” organised by HRP in June 1994. On the day preceding the opening of the conference, the Directorate of the National Police, at a specially organised press conference, denounced its title as prejudicial and declared that it would ignore the invitation to participate. This response by the police - an effective blockade on our attempts at dialogue — marked the earliest phase in relations between the HRP and the police as an institution. The HRP was denied legitimacy as an independent source of information about human rights violations and it came under public attack in the mainstream media for its activities.

In the following years, the HRP continued to publicise cases of police abuse against Roma in Bulgaria and to pressure the competent authorities to enforce the law against perpetrators, as well as to act to prevent further violations. Over this period, HRP reached a new phase in its communication with Bulgarian police and became „an institution” regarded by police authorities as legitimate. We started to receive official answers to most of our reports of misconduct by police officers and the Directorate of the National Police generally has declared that each complaint has been investigated.

A third phase of HRP-police relations was a series of round-table discussions, organised by HRP in 1996 and 1997, which included participants from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, the Directorate of the National Police, and from regional police departments of several cities in Bulgaria. In the meetings, the HRP met with police and authorities from the Ministry in order to talk about the widespread mistreatment of members of the Roma community and the lack of adequate measures against officers who violate the law. For the first time, the issue of the observation of Roma rights was on the agenda of public fora that convened participants from both state organs and the human rights community.

Two of these meetings, held in September 1996 in Sliven and Pazardzhik respectively, were entitled: „Avoiding Conflicts: Interaction between the Police and the Romani Community Based on Respect for Human Rights”. The core issues on which they focused were alleged ethnic bias in the mistreatment of Roma by police officers, a lack of transparency with respect to disciplinary procedures for the police, and impunity surrounding the actions of police officers.

In Sliven, where the first meeting took place, the HRP invited the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, the Directorate of the National Police, the Regional Police Department of Sliven, the United Roma Alliance and the Confederation of Roma in Bulgaria. In the conference hall of a hotel just outside the city, the HRP, which was represented by young Roma and Bulgarians, met with (much older) representatives of the state. After a neutral introductory session on international standards of police work, a speaker for the police read a prepared statement expressing the position of the authorities. This sounded all too familiar: the speech dealt with everything but the topic the police had been invited to address. Roma crime was the speaker’s central theme, and the dominant message was, „Roma activists should conduct educational work and stop their people from stealing”. This beginning was nothing surprising: as a matter of routine, police brutality was justified by law-breaking on the part of Roma.

The surprising part came from us: in a shocking case-by-case sequence, we presented a pattern of police brutality established in the course of the HRP’s four years in existence: deaths of Roma in detention in police stations; beatings and humiliating treatment of Romani individuals; abuse of groups of Roma during mass police operations in Roma neighbourhoods; and inadequate police action for preventing racist violence against Roma. The statement that actually triggered the debates also came from us: we claimed that the Bulgarian police demonstrated a racist attitude in their treatment of Roma. This statement was sustained in the second part of the meeting when the HRP focused on the practice of the press agencies of the Ministry of the Interior and the police of disseminating information through the media about the ethnic origins of perpetrators of crimes only in cases when the perpetrators are Roma. The HRP qualified this practice as a manifestation of a tendentious and discriminatory attitude towards Roma. In the heated exchange of arguments that followed, the representative of the Press Centre of the Ministry of the Interior failed to convince us that they do not publicise the ethnic origin of the Romani criminals. She attributed all fault to inquisitiveness and a thirst for sensation among the journalists from the print media. These had not been invited to the meeting and were therefore incapable of responding to the accusation. The HRP did not back down from its position that the responsibility lay with the press centre of the Ministry and concluded that the release of such information to the national media on a daily basis is a precondition for acts of intolerance and ethnically-motivated violence with respect to Roma.

The police arguments oscillated between accepting the conclusion that „officers from the police sometimes apply illegal force”, and attempts to submerge the issue of human rights into the complex of the social problems faced by the Romani community — low levels of education, unemployment, early marriage, etc. These problems, which have always been the main substance of official rhetoric about Roma, were put forward once again. Discriminatory treatment of Roma was arduously denied. „Exceptional instances” of mistreatment by policemen were acknowledged, but the police representatives alleged that those individuals on the police force who violated the law were severely punished. They could not, however, provide any concrete cases in which officers from the police had been disciplined or prosecuted.

The HRP urged the representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Directorate of the National Police to conduct impartial checks into reports of police misconduct with respect to Roma; to discipline police officers who have committed human rights violations; and to publicise information about disciplinary or legal action taken against police officers who abuse their power.

The representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Directorate of the National Police responded positively by making commitments regarding the problems raised by the HRP. They promised to submit information about disciplinary or legal action against police officers who have violated the rights of Roma; to assist the members of the HRP, when necessary, in establishing contact with local police departments for the purposes of collecting information about alleged police misconduct; and to refute publicly statements in the media which identify the ethnic origins of perpetrators and quote the press agency of the police as a source.

In 1997, the HRP made dialogue with the police a part of its regular activities. In that year, three other roundtable discussions were held in the cities of Montana, Stara Zagora and Shumen, with the participation of the local police authorities. Each of the meetings was also attended by representatives of the local administration as well as Romani leaders from national and local Roma organisations. These meetings constituted a step forward in pressing our agenda. The focus of the 1996 meetings had been to address the issue of official violence and discrimination against Roma in Bulgarian society generally. Having already defined the problem in public discussions with police authorities, we were now able to put individual cases of police brutality in a wider context. As such, we set to work on specific complaints against individual policemen. With a varying degree of commitment and with the general reservation that the cases reported were not representative of a tendency, the police promised to investigate allegations and offered to co-operate with the HRP and Romani leaders in the future.

A new aspect to the discussions was added by the representatives of the local administration: they were concerned about the appalling social conditions of Roma and saw these as a source of tension. They acknowledged the need to develop programs for providing jobs for Roma, which would, in the long term, reduce Roma crime.

The roundtable discussions with the Bulgarian police that took place at the initiative of the HRP have been a means of advocating Roma rights that have fulfilled certain goals. The fact that we were able to convince the police to change their policy of communicating with us indirectly via statements in the media or letters, and instead to become an active participant in a dialogue, is significant. It is a manifestation of their acknowledgement of the right of an independent agent, outside the state apparatus, to observe their performance and demand accountability. The meetings with the police contributed to the legitimacy of the HRP as a monitor of the human rights situation of Roma in Bulgaria and established a model of collaboration between the state and a non-governmental organisation for the pursuit of certain goals important for the whole society.

These fora, on the other hand, also have their limitations. They do not guarantee a fast or radical solution to the problem of police brutality. On the contrary, the information received by the HRP following each of the meetings has been ambiguous. On no occasion has the number of human rights violations committed by police officers against Roma dropped noticeably. Nor has the number of letters from the police informing us that our claims concerning misconduct of officers from the police are flawed decreased in any significant fashion. In some places, Roma have reported that mistreatment by the police continued and in some cases, abuse was fuelled by the fact that victims had complained about it. An elderly Romani woman who was present at one of the discussions with the police in May 1997 travelled over 200 km to come to the office of the HRP and report being intimidated by a local policeman notorious for abusing Roma. She had allegedly been discouraged by this policeman from complaining to „the people from Sofia”, because in her neighbour’s case, „the complaints had come to nothing”.

In other places, however, after HRP meetings the police were reported as being more cautious in their treatment of Roma. The police from Maglizh in the Stara Zagora district respected the request of the branch officer of the HRP based in Stara Zagora to accompany Roma to the police station so that they would feel more at ease while giving testimony about police beatings.

Positive outcomes of meetings with the Bulgarian police were isolated occurrences, however, rather than a clearly defined tendency. We believe that at a later stage the process that was begun with these meetings will bring about more results. The important thing for us, however, is that they have fostered an environment in which a favourable change for the cause of human rights can be felt.


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