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Court awards damages to Roma women

EIGHT Roma women living in Slovakia who believe they were victims of sterilisation without their informed consent and who were subsequently denied the right to get photocopies of their medical records were awarded damages by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on April 28. Each of the plaintiffs is eligible for compensation of €3,500, the court ruled.

EIGHT Roma women living in Slovakia who believe they were victims of sterilisation without their informed consent and who were subsequently denied the right to get photocopies of their medical records were awarded damages by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on April 28. Each of the plaintiffs is eligible for compensation of €3,500, the court ruled.

The case dates back to 2002 when lawyers for the Roma women made attempts to review the medical records of the eight, who were patients in two hospitals in eastern Slovakia, the University Hospital in Prešov and the Health Centre in Krompachy, during their pregnancies and caesarean deliveries. When the women were later unable to become pregnant again they sought to discover the reason for their infertility, said Vanda Durbáková from the Košice-based NGO Centre for Civil and Human Rights which provided legal support to the women.

“At first, the hospitals made it possible to review the medical records and to make photocopies,” Durbáková told The Slovak Spectator.

“But as soon as they realised that the women were trying to find out whether the reason for their infertility could be sterilisation, they denied them further access to the documents.”

The women’s lawyers asked the Slovak courts to order the hospitals to release the medical records. In June 2003, the courts ordered the hospitals to permit the applicants and their authorised representatives to review the medical records and to take handwritten notes from the documents but dismissed the request to photocopy the documents on the basis of preventing their abuse, according to the press release of the ECHR.

“This was really a nonsensical decision since the medical records only contained information about our clients and also, if they were available for reading, then there was no reason to prevent the lawyers from photocopying them,” Durbáková said. She added that the women only turned to the ECHR after having tried all legal possibilities to achieve justice within Slovakia, including filing complaints with the Ministry of Health.

“It is a travesty of justice that these victims were denied adequate access to their very own medical records,” stated the co-chairman of the US Helsinki Committee, Congressman Alcee Hastings.
In 2005, the law was changed and since that time it has been possible for patients to photocopy their own health records.

“However, this had been denied to the women for three years long,” said Durbáková.

In its decision the ECHR held that there had been a violation of the plaintiffs’ right to respect for private and family life because the applicants were not allowed to make photocopies of their medical records and that there had been a violation of their right of access to court because without photocopies of their medical records, the plaintiffs’ effective access to the judicial system was limited.

The violation of the right of access to court is more serious in this case, according to Zuzana Fenesová from the Office of the Slovak Agent before the ECHR. Marica Pirošíková currently serves as the Agent of the Slovak Republic before the ECHR.

Slovak judge Ján Šikuta, who was a member of the seven-member panel of judges, did not agree with this particular point in the majority’s conclusion, saying that despite the fact that the plaintiffs had less information because they were not allowed to photocopy their medical records, they still had enough information to initiate legal procedures.

“First, if the court considered it necessary to get additional information from the medical records of the plaintiffs, it would, following its standard procedure, name an expert who would have access to the original medical records,” Fenesová told The Slovak Spectator.

“Secondly, the plaintiffs did not even try to initiate a legal proceeding [in Slovakia],” Fenesová said. “The claim that they had no chance to be successful in front of the court is speculative,” she said because if the court believed there was lack of evidence it would have ordered the hospitals to make the medical records accessible to the court. Thirdly, she said that the plaintiffs had the possibility to initiate a court proceeding under the Health Care Act to access the records but they chose not to do so. In his dissent, Judge Šikuta also referenced the previous ruling of the Slovak Constitutional Court which had rejected the original complaint, Fenesová said.
Slovakia’s Agent before the ECHR will attempt to appeal the decision in this case to the 17-member panel of the Grand Chamber of the Court.

The plaintiffs’ case does not primarily concern the alleged forced sterilisations, but rather the failure to provide access to medical records.

“The case touches the sterilisations to the extent that the hospitals denied access [to the records] when they found out why the records were needed,” Durbáková told The Slovak Spectator, adding that there are numerous cases dealing with actual sterilisations that are still in progress.
“There are cases of women in front of the ECHR who, after seeing their medical records, had found out that they had been sterilised but neither they nor their legal representatives had ever given consent to that,” she said.

A media campaign about reported sterilisation of Roma women in Slovakia started with a report by the New York Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Advisory Service for Civil and Human Rights titled Body and Soul: Forced Sterilisations and Other Attacks on the Reproductive Freedom of Roma in Slovakia, published in 2003. The report alleged that there had been more than 110 cases of forced and violent sterilisations of Roma women in state hospitals in eastern Slovakia since 1989.

The publication of the report was followed by an investigation of alleged illegal sterilisation of Roma women initiated by the Slovak government, which closed at the end of October 2003 with the conclusion that no crime had been committed.

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