Shining a light on human rights failings

MISTREATMENT of Roma criminal suspects; lengthy pre-trial detention; corruption in the judiciary, local government and health sector; and routine discrimination against Roma remain the blemishes on Slovakia's human rights record, according to the annual report on human rights practices released by the US State Department on March 11.

MISTREATMENT of Roma criminal suspects; lengthy pre-trial detention; corruption in the judiciary, local government and health sector; and routine discrimination against Roma remain the blemishes on Slovakia's human rights record, according to the annual report on human rights practices released by the US State Department on March 11.

The State Department also labelled restrictions on the freedom of religion, violence against women and children and human trafficking as areas vulnerable to failings. Concerns about freedom of the press and antagonistic statements disseminated by Slovak politicians made it into the report as well.

The Slovak government has dismissed the report and said that the United States should focus on its own problems.

"If we were to write a report about respect for human rights, we would certainly find something in the United States," Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told the Sme daily. "It is simple to write reports. But the only body that can actually rule on violations is a court."

Ján Slota, chairman of the Slovak National Party, which is the second strongest in the governing coalition, said that a country that "vetoes laws on torture and devastates the environment has no moral grounds on which to criticise others."

But political scientist Miroslav Kusý commented that even if Slovakia was to find shortcomings in the United States' human right record, it does not change the significance of the report's findings.

"It is a standard report that examines the challenges this country is encountering," Kusý told The Slovak Spectator. "It needs to be taken seriously."

Report detects mistreatment

According to the report, discrimination against minorities, particularly Roma, was common during a year in which the Slovak National Centre for Human Rights reported 1,440 complaints of discrimination.

Only three of those complaints were ever brought before a court.

"Widespread discrimination against Roma continued in the areas of employment, education, health services, housing, and loan practices," reads the human rights report. "Activists frequently alleged that employers refused to hire Roma, whose unemployment rate exceeded 95 percent in many settlements. Romani children were disproportionately assigned to schools for children with mental disabilities, essentially eliminating their chances to pursue higher education."

The report also noted the forced evictions of Roma inhabitants, as well as Roma settlements' lack of infrastructure, access to clean water and proper sewage systems.

One of the cases mentioned in the report occurred in the city of Nové Zámky, where a building occupied by predominantly Roma tenants was sold to a private owner, who promptly evicted 40 families and moved them to housing that lacked basic amenities.

"Public officials at every level defamed minorities and made derogatory comments about Roma. Inflammatory speech among government officials also raised tensions between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Slovaks, especially since 2006," read the US Department of State report.

The report also cited the issue of lengthy pre-trial detentions.

"According to 2006 statistics, pre-trial detainees accounted for approximately one-third of the total prison population and were held on the average for 117 days at the district court level and 274 days at the regional court level," reads the report. "Judges released seven defendants involved in criminal murder cases from detention because of maximum pre-trial detention regulations, even as the cases continued in the courts."

The Justice Ministry's calls for the abolition of the Special Court did not escape the State Department's attention either. Though Prime Minister Fico rejected the calls, the justice minister, according to the report, continued introducing various measures to undermine the court's authority and reduce its funding.

While the independent media were allowed to express a variety of views, government influence penetrated the state-owned television and wire service, the report stated.

"There were reports that newly appointed directors of Slovak Public Television exerted pressure in the news department to provide favorable coverage of governing coalition events and activities, leading to the departure of several reporters and editors," the report reads.

According to the US State Department, the government took several actions that observers believed were intended to coerce the media into curtailing reporting critical of the government.

The US Department of State also noticed that public expressions of support for the wartime Slovak fascist state, which deported tens of thousands of Jews and Roma, had increased during the year.

Slovenské Hnutie Obrody, an extreme right-wing group, and similar groups linked their Web sites to those of Matica Slovenská, a cultural heritage organization that received significant state subsidies, and reproduced articles from Matica Slovenská's newsletter without authorization; "Matica Slovenská did not act to stop these practices," the report said.

The worldwide Human Rights Report is mandated by the US Congress. The report for 2007 examined human rights in 196 countries, including civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion and the press, the freedom to choose one's own government and worker's rights.

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