A young Romany man being questioned about a bicycle theft was shot in the stomach during a one-on-one police interview in a Poprad police station August 13. Despite three operations, he died from his injuries five days later.
Police are reporting that the shooting of Ľubomir Šarišský was either accidental or that the boy fatally shot himself in the stomach after an argument with the policeman.
Ladislav Maličký, an investigator with the Prešov regional police, told the SITA news agency that the crime will be "reconstructed in two weeks to prove one or the other (two possible police) causes of the shooting." The idea that the crime had a racial element or was intentional, he said, "is out of the question."
Maličky also said that the boy had written a suicide note which was being investigated.
Poprad District Police Chief Jozefa Dlugoša had a slightly different story. He told the daily newspaper Sme that the boy admitted he had shot himself after the incident, saying the policeman had given him the pistol.
Other media sources reported that the officer whose pistol killed the youth is being investigated for a number of breaches of police procedure, including questioning a prisoner without another officer present, and having an unsecured gun with him during questioning. The policeman has been temporarily suspended from duty, press reports said. The Interior Ministry and the Regional Police office are not officially commenting until the investigation is complete.
Peter Pompa, a lawyer closely following the case for the family of the victim, strongly refuted all police accounts. The boy, he said, was from a "well-established" Poprad Roma family and had never before been in trouble. Police countered this claim, saying Šarišský had been investigated for both property and violent crimes.
Pompa said the youth was picked up by police for the bicycle theft suddenly and without a proper investigation. Further, an injured Šarišský indicated to a friend that he had been shot and certainly gave no statement to police that he had shot himself, he said.
Pompa said that he thought the fact that Šarišský was Roma was a factor in the shooting. But he added that the deeper issue is one of the safety of people in the hands of the police.
"It doesn't matter that he was gypsy. He was shot at the police station. This could happen to anybody," he said.
The family plans to file both criminal and civil charges against the police officer and the state, he added.
Amelia Pompová, a Roma community center activist who deals with Roma in Poprad, said the Roma community in Poprad is "very afraid at this point of the police." The rumour in the community about this case, she said, was that the policemen were drunk and yelling at the boy angrily about the recent exodus of Roma to Finland, which many Slovaks feel has unfairly resulted in visa requirements for them abroad.
Regardless of what happened, the chances that an investigation and trial will proceed fairly are not good, said Claude Cahn of the European Roma Rights Center. "There are very slim chances that a fair prosecution will proceed. The prosecution of police officers in general is very rare in central Europe," he said.
Cahn cited a similar case in the Czech Republic in 1993 in which a Roma woman was shot in the police station and later died. The police officer was not only not punished, but after a few years was promoted, and later found himself in charge of another Roma skinhead attack case, he said.
According to press accounts, the bullet pierced Šarišský's stomach and other vital organs and damaged his spine. He died in Poprad hospital.