MARCH 8 was International Roma Day, but Slovakia was not celebrating any improvement in the status of its second-largest ethnic minority. Instead, police inspectors were poring over tapes depicting their colleagues humiliating Roma children in scenes reminiscent of mistreatment at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail.
Half a dozen videos shot by police themselves last month at a local station in Košice, eastern Slovakia, show six Roma children being forced to strip naked, kiss each other on the cheek and then strike each other in the face.
In one shot, six young Roma boys standing in a tiny room begin pulling their clothes off. A voice from above shouts at them to be quick, that the last to disrobe will be punished. One thin boy hesitates to pull off his white underwear. “Take it all off!” a voice shouts. “Hands behind your heads!” The camera that is filming this humiliating scene closes in on the boys’ genitals and then pans out to capture one of them looking up at his tormentors.
In another scene, police in uniform are restraining dogs that are barking at the same six boys. One of them is hiding behind a desk. The sound of crying can be heard. “Shut up, stop crying already!” shouts a voice. “Bunch of fucking gypsies.”
In still another, the boys are made to kiss each other on the cheek and then slap each other in the face.
“Give him a good one! And now you, hit him back! Now kiss each other,” says the hidden cameraman. “Hit him and shut up. I’ll tell you when to stop. If he ducks, I’ll kick him.”
Uniformed police officers can be seen filming the action on their cameras and mobile phones. The police spectators laugh as the boys, uncertain, keep looking around for instructions. “What kind of a punch was that? Hit him as hard as he hit you!“
These degrading scenes were filmed on March 21. According to the woman who reported the abuse and says she obtained the videos from her nephew, who is a policeman, the Roma children suffered even worse maltreatment than the films show.
“My nephew told me these videos are nothing, they also shot some where these policemen let their dogs attack the kids, and some were bitten. They also filmed those attacks and sent them to their friends. I don’t understand how such people can become policemen.”
Contacted at home in Košice on April 7, Ivan Kroščen, 13, said that he and his five friends had stolen a purse at a Košice shopping mall, and after being arrested had been taken by the police to a downtown precinct. Their parents were not called until after their interrogation, he said. Three of them are 16, two are 13 and one is only 11.
“They kept laughing at us, and told us not to be afraid of the dogs because they were young ones,” he said. “But one bit me on the leg and on the bum.”
Janette Žigová, the mother of another of the boys, said she had complained to a police investigator and asked him how to file charges, but said the investigator had laughed at her. “They’re racists. They like torturing little Roma kids. They would never do this to white kids.”
Žigová said her son Ondrej claimed to have been held upside down by the ankles over a second story balcony. “They wanted him to confess,” she said. Other boys were forced to kiss a policeman’s boots.
Dismissals and charges
At a press conference called on April 7 after the videos surfaced, the country’s top policeman, Ján Packa, said that up to nine policemen – six patrolmen and three of their superiors – would be fired as a result, and that they would be charged with abuse of power. “These individuals have seriously harmed the good name of the Slovak police corps,” he said.
Packa said the boys in the videos had injured a 66-year-old woman in stealing her purse and left her lying on the sidewalk. Three of the boys were charged after a four-hour interrogation, three were released as minors.
This is not the first time the Slovak police have been accused of abusing Roma suspects in their custody. In 2001, Karol Sendrei, 51, was beaten to death while handcuffed to a radiator at a police station in Revúca, central Slovakia. Seven of his police attackers were found guilty of torture last year.
“This is horrific, but at the same time it’s nothing out of the ordinary,” said Klára Orgovánová, herself a Roma, who served until 2006 as the government appointee for Roma issues. “This is a primitive society, where people still think it’s OK to treat Roma in this way. So we can’t expect the police to behave any differently.”
Neither Dušan Čaplovič, the deputy prime minister for human rights and minorities, nor current Roma affairs appointee Anna Botošová responded to requests for comment.
13. Apr 2009 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson