THREE ROMA women from eastern Slovakia were awarded Sk50,000 each in damages after the Constitutional Court ruled on December 13 last year that their human rights had been violated when the police shelved an investigation into illegal sterilizations performed on them without their consent between 1999 and 2002.
The three women appealed repeatedly to the Košice prosecutor's office to have the investigation reopened but were ignored. They eventually took their case to the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial authority.
Six weeks ago, the Court ruled in their favour, stating that the Košice prosecutor's office had not had sufficient grounds to reject the women's complaints. The ruling received no press coverage, however, and was quietly posted on the Court's server (www.comcourt.sk).
Constitutional Court spokesman Štefan Németh said that in deciding to drop the case, the Košice prosecutor had "violated the basic constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, especially the right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment".
The original investigation into the alleged forced sterilizations was launched on January 30, 2003 by the Human Rights and Minorities section at the Government Office.
The investigation followed the publication of a report in early January 2003 by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights and the Slovak Centre for Civil and Human Rights.
The report, entitled Body and Soul, listed 110 cases of Roma women who had allegedly been sterilized against their will in public hospitals in various eastern Slovak towns.
It also listed other offences that had been committed against Roma women, including verbal and physical abuse, racial segregation on maternity wards, misinformation on health matters, denial of access to medical records, and discriminatory standards of care.
According to the report, many of the women who were sterilized never received a proper explanation of the consequences of the procedure, and signed the approval papers moments before undergoing the operation; some were already under anaesthetic.
The forced sterilizations case was widely reported in 2003 and drew the attention not only of various human rights groups but also of the EU and the European Commission, which called on Slovakia to thoroughly look into the allegations.
Police investigated the hospitals where the acts allegedly took place for the crime of genocide, but in October 2003 concluded that the charges could not be proven, and closed the case.
However, three Roma women were not satisfied, and took their case all the way to the highest court.
"In their complaints they objected that the investigators never dealt with the issue of whether the plaintiffs ever provided informed consent for the sterilizations," stated the Constitutional Court in its recent verdict.
Two of the women were underage at the time of their sterilizations, meaning that under Slovak law, the hospitals were required to secure consent from their legal guardians; this did not happen, according to the Court verdict. The third woman was of age, but claimed she was never informed that the procedure was going to be performed.
The Constitutional Court verdict may not represent a break in the case, as it did not address the legality of the sterilizations themselves, but only the approach of the Košice prosecutor's office. The latter has rejected the women's complaints twice already, and will now have to look into the case for a third time.
"The prosecutor's office will soon adopt measures that will enable it to comply with the Constitutional Court's verdict," said Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Svetlana Husárová.
The three Roma women are also demanding compensation from the Constitutional Court for the forced sterilizations, although the Court has not set a date at which it might rule on the matter.
According to the Body and Soul report, Slovakia and other former communist countries have a history of state-supported sterilization of Roma women in order to control the population of the ethnic minority.
"The current practices of forced and coerced sterilization are grounded in previous state policies that were perpetrated under both the Nazi and Communist regimes in the territory of Czechoslovakia," the report read. "Toward the latter years of the communist era, Roma women were the targets of a Czechoslovak government program that offered monetary incentives to all citizens that underwent sterilization.
"Although the program made these incentives available to all persons, regardless of race or ethnicity, government documents and independent international and national reports indicate that the government took specific measures to influence Roma women to undergo sterilization."
5. Feb 2007 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová