Institutional racism penetrated the justice system

No amount of evidence will ever be enough to hold racist police officers to account when they terrorise and brutalise Roma communities.

A man from Roma settlement Vrbnica shows his bruises allegedly caused by police. A man from Roma settlement Vrbnica shows his bruises allegedly caused by police. (Source: TASR)

The author is the Human Rights Monitoring Coordinator at the European Roma Rights Centre.

In April 2017, video footage emerged of police officers indiscriminately beating Roma women, men and children upon entering a majority-Roma area of Zborov. The video was filmed from a window by a Roma man who refused to delete the file after police allegedly visited the community to demand that all evidence of the attack was confiscated or destroyed.

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The video drew widespread outrage (and a significant amount of racist vitriol) from the Slovak general public. It was the first time that police brutality against Roma people had been caught so brazenly on camera, and regardless of the circumstances, showed police officers mercilessly striking civilians, including an old Roma woman with disabilities who was beaten to the ground.

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Despite the shocking video evidence of excessive force towards the Roma in Zborov, the domestic court and the Police Inspectorate announced that they had found “no wrongdoings” in the actions of the police officers involved.

Sadly, this did not come as a surprise to many who are familiar with the history of such cases against police brutality in Slovakia. This is not the first time that Roma have been denied justice. It’s not even the second, third, or fourth time. The Slovak court records are littered with inadequate and disproportionate judgements relating to human rights abuse of the Roma.

The European Roma Rights Centre, who released the video to the public and took legal proceedings before the court, has provided mounting evidence to the Slovak authorities in similar cases in Moldava nad Bodvou, Vrbnica, Strane pod Tatrami, Rakusy, and Podhorany. Each case has resulted in the same outcome from the Police Inspectorate and national justice system - no wrongdoings to be found.

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It is clear that no amount of evidence will ever be enough to hold racist police officers to account when they terrorise and brutalise Roma communities. There is something broken in the Slovak justice system. Institutional racism has penetrated so deeply in the judicial apparatus and law enforcement circles that they are not fit for purpose to provide for the needs of the country’s Roma citizens. Last year, a UN body expressed deep concerns in its observations on Slovakia regarding police violence against Roma and failures to properly investigate such actions:

“The Committee notes with great concern that the majority of these reports are either not duly investigated or when investigations have been initiated, they have been suspended, and most complaints against law enforcement officers have been dismissed.”

The recent case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding the shooting of a Roma family in Hurbanovo by an off-duty municipal police officer confirmed the gross mishandling of the case by the national courts to the extent that justice could only be found from Europe’s highest judges. In the case of Moldava nad Bodvou, the investigation of a violent police raid on a Roma community even resulted in the Roma victims being accused of perjury rather than the offending officers being held to account.

After the Zborov video was released and the police investigation progressed, it became quickly apparent that the Police Inspectorate were less interested in properly investigating what had happened on April 17, and were instead occupied with the task of obstructing the pursuit of justice for the victims in order to preserve the careers of the officers involved. The ombudswoman’s investigation of the police raid in Zborov clearly contradicts the findings of the Police inspection and the domestic court:

"The ombudswoman stated that the police intervention was inadequate for the gravity of the situation and needed response. Police officers should have a high degree of professionalism and should pay increased attention while using force, especially if vulnerable groups (women, children, elderly) are involved. From the obtained evidence, it is clear that the police used excessive force; it was not used only to the necessary extent, but was used overwhelmingly, even against vulnerable groups. Therefore, the Ombudsperson found that the police action violated the law against mistreatment and degradation of human dignity."

The European Roma Rights Centre will follow up with a complaint to the Slovak Constitutional Court with the intention to secure justice for Roma in Zborov at all costs. However, the recent ECHR ruling in the case of the Hurbanovo shooting from 2012 demonstrated the failings of the Slovak Constitutional Court. If the Slovak national courts continue to obstinately turn their back on Roma who demand justice when their rights are violated, then the ERRC will force their hand through a higher European court, which is not as tainted by the bias of antigypsyism.

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