The latest in a recent string of racially motivated beatings in Bratislava has awoken cries of outrage from minority leaders and international observers. Calling violent attacks 'normal occurrences' for non-whites in Slovakia, these groups called on the government and Slovak citizens to end their collective passivity against hate crime.
On February 17, two Japanese tourists were attacked by eight male teenagers with shaved heads on Židovská ulica in the Bratislava city centre. Bratislava police spokesperson Marta Bujňáková said that the tourists received "non-serious" injuries which would require five to ten days to heal.
Bujňáková said that the police had since detained six of the eight suspects, all of whom were between 16 and 18 years old, and charged them witth hooliganism and causing bodily harm. If convicted they could face three years in prison.
The teens hailed from various towns in the Záhorie region northwest of Bratislava, Bujňáková said. One of the suspects had a swastika tattoo on his chest, and none of the gang showed remorse. "During the investigation, the boys proudly explained that they were involved with the skinhead movement, which apparently influenced their violent behaviour," she said.
The Japanese tourists disappeared after lodging a complaint with police, and the Japanese embassy in Prague said on February 24 that they had no information on the attacks.
Minority groups reacted furiously to the latest attack, saying that like two other recent beatings in the capital, it was committed in broad daylight on a major thoroughfare and demonstrated both the audacity of the attackers as well as the apathy of the public.
On November 26, a group of 20 skinheads beat a Chinese student on Kollárovo námestie in the Bratislava old town. On January 29, five skinheads attacked and beat black-skinned John M., calling him a "black pig" at 17:00 on Bratislava's Hlavné námestie (main square), Bujňáková reported. Each victim required hospital treatment for minor injuries. Arrests have been made in both cases, and according to the police racial hatred was the primary motive.
Róbert Poláček, a member of the board of the Slovak Helsinki Committee, said that the attacks represented a disturbing trend. "Be it violence against Roma or foreigners with different coloured skin, the reason behind these attacks is 'being different,'" he said in a prepared statement February 23 for The Slovak Spectator. "It is also alarming that these attacks often occur on busy streets - this highlights not only the hatred of the attackers, but also the ignorance of the rest of society."
In response to the attack on the Japanese tourists, Bratislava police president Ján Pipta held a press conference in Bratislava on February 21 to declare a "massive preventive action to break up groups of skinheads and anarchists." However, the exact action to be taken was not revealed. Bujňáková said that police representatives planned to meet on February 24 to decide on further actions.
Pipta's vague prescriptions were criticised by Columbus Igboanusi, a lawyer for the Bratislava-based NGO League of Human Rights Advocates who specialises in offering legal counsel to victims of racial beatings.
"The police do not match their words with actions, they do not actively fight against racism in Slovakia," Igboanusi said. "We have heard this before from the police, but they do nothing as the attacks continue."
According to Igboanusi, racism is tolerated by the majority of Slovaks who, through "institutionalised racism", are taught from childhood that people with dark skin are inferior to white Slovaks. "Classes in Slovakia are segregated between white Slovaks and Gypsies," he said. "The hatred is thereby planted in the young mind."
That hatred, he continued, routinely results in violence. Robert Mashavira, a 28-year-old student from Zimbabwe who studied in Slovakia from 1990 till 1996, said he had frequently been the target of racial beatings. "During that time, I was physically assaulted five times, resulting in chipped teeth and [on separate occasions] broken ribs," he said. "Then I studied for a year in England and I was never attacked and I never feared for my safety."
Igboanusi said that foreign non-white students are violently attacked "two or three times per year, and if they are unlucky more often." But many of the cases go unreported, he said, while those that are reported to the police usually do not result in prosecution.
"The victims are usually afraid to go to court, and the police conduct poor investigations," he said. Mashavira added that being attacked was considered a standard condition of studying in Slovakia, but that most students failed to report the crimes because their main aim was to finish their studies.
"In Slovakia, I decided that the best thing to do was to just stay in my dorm," Mashavira said. "I wanted to finish studying, so I just never went out anywhere. However, other students I know who get scholarships to come to Slovakia don't come because they hear about the violence. I tell them to hold on, there is no better alternative."
Additional reporting by Martina Pisárová