A human rights lawyer, Columbus Igboanusi was attacked last year by a skinhead who, although convicted for the crime, was not sentenced.
photo: Ján Svrček
"If I didn't have my job and my commitments towards the people who need me, I wouldn't have a single reason to stay in Slovakia," he says. "Many Africans end up leaving Slovakia because of racism, and the insufficient extent to which racism is fought."
After winning - yet effectively losing - a recent court case concerning a racially-motivated beating he himself suffered, Igboanusi denounced the passive approach of Slovak police and courts towards such attacks. His anger stems from a March 28 court decision in which 17 year-old skinhead Tomáš Bugár was found guilty of committing a racially-motivated crime, yet was given no sentence.
Presiding judge Ladislav Piros explained that his decision had been the result of the contrition expressed by the confessed criminal, and his previously clean record. "This crime did not warrant the punishment of a citizen who up till then had an impeccable record. And when he entered my court, Bugár did not look like a skinhead. He had grown his hair out, and for 30 minutes he cried, saying that he regretted the beating."
In April 2000, Igboanusi was exiting the Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his waist. He looked around and saw a teenager with a shaven head wearing army boots. The skinhead physically attacked him and called him a "nigger".
"Why are you attacking me?" Colombus said he asked the skinhead. "Because you are a nigger," came the response.
The Interior Ministry says that it is monitoring some 300 "dangerous" skinheads.
The ensuing investigation and court procedures took almost a year. Although Piros ruled that Igboanusi had indeed been attacked because of his race, no punishment was levied. Instead, the judge cited mitigating circumstances such the young age of the culprit, his apparent regret during the court procedures, and his confession. Furthermore, he stated, Bugár was well-liked by his peers. Judge Piros therefore adjudicated that the court procedure itself had been enough punishment for the culprit.
According to lawyer Ján Hrubala, racially-motivated crimes are a pressing problem in Slovak society. So pressing, he said, that mitigating circumstance should never persuade a judge to allow a criminal convicted of a racial beating to walk punishment-free.
"I am not a fan of punishment," he said. "But in racially-motivated cases, it is important to bear in mind how dangerous they are to society."
Piros countered that the case was the first racially-motivated crime to be tried in the Dunajská Streda district over the past 20 years. "And the crime actually happened in Bratislava," he said. "I think that the boy was influenced by the evil society up there."
László Nagy, the head of the parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, refused to offer excuses for the young culprit. "No mitigating circumstances should be taken into consideration in a racially-motivated attack or hate-crime," he said. "The hatred aimed against the Roma and members of the Hungarian minority has been increasing. We have to fight against this, not apologise for it," said Nagy, adding that judges and courts should be part of the fight.
Based on his personal experience as a human rights lawyer in Slovakia, Igboanusi believes that "Slovakia is in last place in terms of fighting against racism, behind countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary, and far behind developed western democracies".
Interior Ministry spokesperson Jozef Sitár disagreed, saying that Slovak police were working hard to eliminate racially-motivated crimes. "Special attention is paid to the dangerous members of the skinhead movement and its supporters because they pose a great danger to society," he said.
According to ministry statistics, there are 300 skinheads being monitored in Slovakia. The police solved 25 of the 35 racially-motivated crimes which were reported last year. The most frequent targets of skinhead attacks were the Roma.
Because of the colour of his skin, Igboanusi says, he has been attacked six times in Slovakia. Investigations have yet to begin in two of the three cases in which he has laid charges.
For example, he said, last summer as he stood on Bratislava's SNP square, a skinhead shouted at him: "You dirty nigger! What are you doing here? Get out of here!" Columbus laid charges that day against the unknown culprit, but has yet to hear from the police.
Igboanusi was also physically attacked by a group of teenagers, also with shaved heads and wearing army boots, on a separate occasion in Bratislava. He reported the attack to a policeman, who wrote on his report that Igboanusi had "had some problems with cyclists".
"Who should I go to?" asked Igboanusi. "The courts pardon convicted felons and the police don't even act on such cases."
When asked if he would appeal the Dunajská Streda court decision, he said: "I will, but nothing will change."