Slovakia slouches in human rights

THE NEW annual report on human rights released by the US Department of State criticizes Slovakia for ongoing discrimination against the Roma, a corrupt judiciary and an unhealthy connection between private television station TV Markíza and ruling coalition politician Pavol Rusko.

THE NEW annual report on human rights released by the US Department of State criticizes Slovakia for ongoing discrimination against the Roma, a corrupt judiciary and an unhealthy connection between private television station TV Markíza and ruling coalition politician Pavol Rusko.

The global report, submitted to the US Congress February 28, dedicated 24 pages to Slovakia.

"The [Slovak] government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas," the report states.

Discrimination against the Roma, who make up eight percent of the Slovak population, topped the offences. According to the report, the Roma minority faces considerable inequities in education, employment and healthcare.

They also suffer from police brutality. Slovak police officers "used excessive force, particularly against the Roma".

The report continues: "Lengthy pre-trial detention was a problem. Racially motivated crimes, predominantly by organized neo-Nazi groups targeting Roma, persisted. The crimes were not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and police occasionally did not investigate the crimes thoroughly."

An incident in Trebišov in Eastern Slovakia received special attention.

"Authorities reportedly charged six police officers with brutality after the government sent approximately 2,000 police and 1,000 soldiers to the eastern part of the country in February to quell a rash of grocery store lootings. In an effort to discourage further lootings in Trebišov, police raided the Romani settlement in the area and arrested 40 persons.

"Roma rights activists reported that police physically assaulted the Roma, injured small children, unnecessarily broke windows and doors and restricted the movement of residents in the settlement near Trebišov. The European Roma Rights Centre reported that several injuries were sustained from the use of electric cattle prods. The Roma Plenipotentiary's Office submitted several complaints about the police action. Police reportedly used pressure and threats to discourage Roma from pressing charges," the report states.

Domestic violence against women and children remain problems as well, including trafficking in women.

Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Pál Csáky is in charge of minority issues and human rights. Csáky's spokesperson, Martin Urmanič, told The Slovak Spectator that, overall, the US report "was a balanced account". Nevertheless, Urmanič stressed that the report should be read with a grain of salt.

"We feel that sometimes foreign organizations and media are rather excessive in their evaluation of the bad situation of the Roma. We don't think that it is all that dramatic, but we admit that it is not easy either," he said.

In defence of Csáky, Urmanič said: "The government is not hiding from this problem. The cabinet regularly updates the action plan for improving the situation of the Roma in various areas including health care, education and housing."

The Slovak government also joined a recent Central European initiative called The Decade of Roma Inclusion, pledging to invest in programmes designed to help the Roma minority.

Good and bad in the courts

The report also focussed on the Slovak judiciary system. "The [Slovak] Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, corruption and inefficiency were serious problems," it states.

Several measures in place to counteract judicial corruption were highlighted. "The Justice Ministry continued to take disciplinary action against judges suspected of corruption. A computerized system for random case assignment functioned at almost every level of the courts to reduce corruption."

Lower court reform, which was approved in May 2004, is described as a step towards a more efficient judiciary. "Reorganization was an effort to promote judge specialization and increase the efficiency of the overburdened lower courts," states the report.

Justice Ministry Spokesperson Richard Fides said that the ministry was dedicated to making steps towards a more effective and transparent judiciary.

"We have made a bulk of legislative changes in business, civil and criminal statutes in order to make the operation of the courts more effective. To remove some of the burden on judges, we introduced 600 higher court clerks to manage administrative work so judges could concentrate on their judicial work," he said.

According to Fides, "the changes do not show immediately. Months or years are probably needed."

The report's accusations of serious corruption problems in the Slovak judiciary caught the attention of Ján Hrubala, the head of the Slovak cabinet's anti-corruption department.

"I am the last to deny that the problem of corruption exists in the judiciary, but I always wonder what objective facts are the basis for the authors of similar reports," he said.

"Certainly, people perceive the problem of corruption, in general as well as in courts. However, the concrete cases are missing. Last year only one judge was sentenced, and maybe two are being prosecuted."

According to Hrubala, most Slovak judges are honourable people suffering from a damaged reputation because of a few crooked justices.

"I have to admit that I would welcome a more proactive attitude by the silent majority of judges to clear their profession of such a reputation," Hrubala said.

Media enters the equation

The Slovak Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom, and the government generally respects these rights," the report states.

It reserved critical remarks for the media, however.

Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, who is also the chairman of the ruling New Citizen's Alliance party, was singled out for "influencing TV Markíza's editorial policies, despite having divested his ownership interest".

"Media watchdog organizations criticized the station, saying its programming favoured certain political parties." As an example, the report provided the following: "The Christian Democratic Party refused to grant Markíza personal interviews because of perceived unfair treatment by the station."

Vladimír Repčík, the general director of TV Markíza defended his TV station against the findings.

"I have read this year's report by the US Department of State very carefully. I was pleasantly surprised with the exactness of the data especially in terms of the criticism over inadequate police interference, or various other attacks against the Roma minority. The exactness, however, is lacking in the paragraphs dedicated to our television station," Repčík said.

"In our case I consider the report to be very unspecific and general, and so I have to take it just as a subjective opinion of the authors rather than an analysis supported with expert facts. In our case the authors were rather superficial, which I consider to be unprofessional," he said.

In general, the report described Slovak journalists as "able to criticize the government without fear of reprisal" and "generally free from harassment or intimidation".

The US report, entitled "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices", describes the status of internationally recognized human rights groups in countries that receive assistance from the United States. The report also includes foreign countries that are members of the United Nations.

The document also includes reports on several countries that do not fall into the aforementioned categories.

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