Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Slovakia: Roma exclusion and the dark side of democracy

The EU should heed Slovakia consistently falling short of ‘Council of Europe standards’ in a seemingly inexorable shift to the dark side of democracy: illiberal, majoritarian, Christian and national.

A Roma settlment in Kralovsky Chlmec, Slovakia, March 2015. Petr David Josek / Press Association. All rights reserved.On April 1, Slovak Interior Ministry investigators stopped prosecutions in all cases against police officers and announced that there was no torture, no illegal entry into homes and no inappropriate coercion during a notoriously violent police raid in the Roma settlement of Budulovská in the town of Moldava nad Bodvou in Moldava back in June 2013. 

The earlier decision by the prosecutor to shut down the investigation into police brutality prompted protests from the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in a case which was described by the Ombudswoman as “shameful for Slovakia.” 

ERRC President Đorđe Jovanović, said, “Once again the justice system in Slovakia has failed its Romani citizens. This conclusion is completely at odds with the evidence and the opinion of many international observers.”

In a public statement the ERRC and the Centre for Civil and Human Rights (Poradňa) described the investigation as wholly ineffective and condemned the decision not to prosecute any of the 60 police officers involved in the raid which left several people injured and in need of medical attention, and caused widespread damage to property and belongings. Some of those detained in police custody afterwards claimed that they were subjected to brutal ill treatment by police officers. 

The raid attracted much international condemnation; and the foot-dragging, irregularities and delays in the subsequent investigation were widely criticized. The prosecution only started half a year after the raid took place and then it took another year and a half for the investigator to gather all testimonies and evidence before publishing the decision. At one point, in an attempt to discredit the plaintiffs, the investigator requested an expert inquiry into the mental conditions of the victims.At one point, in an attempt to discredit the plaintiffs, the investigator requested an expert inquiry into the mental conditions of the victims. 

The ERRC earlier reported that state authorities – the Parliament and the Government - refused to examine the Ombudsperson’s report or hear her personal intervention. Instead, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs charged her with breaking the existing law, and the Ministry of Interior reacted with labeling her “a liar, who unfortunately politicizes the issue”. 

“The conduct and the outcome of this investigation suggest that Slovak law enforcement officers operate in a climate of complete impunity. There is an urgent need for an independent police complaints commission with a remit to ensure that justice is served, in a prompt, timely and transparent fashion,” stated Jovanović.

The decision not to prosecute any police officers came as little surprise and is entirely consistent with a recent verdict of the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) that systematic repressive action by the police goes hand in hand with ineffective investigations of police misconduct.

Such was the case last year when ten current and former police officers charged with abusing Romani children at a police station in 2009, were acquitted. The case was particularly scandalous because the officers who forced the children to undress, to slap each other, and threatened them with dogs, filmed their torture and humiliation of the children. The film went viral on YouTube with Kosiče police station being dubbed in some media as Slovakia’s Abu Ghraib. The film went viral on YouTube with Kosiče police station being dubbed in some media as Slovakia’s Abu Ghraib. The acquittal was also a scandal: the judge did not allow the video material to be used as evidence and threw out the case because “The evidence is not sufficient to find the defendants guilty, nor to express a conclusion beyond the shadow of a doubt that the crime took place as the prosecutor alleges.”

Beyond police brutality and the culture of impunity, it is clear that Slovakia’s governing party has embraced the model of illiberal democracy currently favoured by two members of the Visegrad Four. Back in 2013, Prime Minister Robert Fico in a tirade against ‘minority rights extortion’ declared that: “We did not establish our independent state to give preferential treatment to minorities, however much we appreciate them, but to privilege the Slovak nation-state in particular. It holds here that the state is a national one and our society is a civic one. It is a curious situation when minority problems are being intentionally foregrounded everywhere to the detriment of the Slovak nation-state. It’s as if there are no Slovak men and women living in Slovakia.”

Amnesty International reported in 2015 that despite a district court ruling in 2012 that segregation of Romani children was illegal, children now face even more severe segregation by being placed in “container schools”, where they are completely cut off, not just from their peers, but from almost anybody from the non-Roma population. The Commission in 2015 initiated infringement proceedings against Slovakia for school segregation. The government dismissed such criticism and tried to explain away the disproportionate placement of Romani children in special schools as the consequence of incest: “One of the reasons why there is higher occurrence of genetically determined disorders is that Slovak Roma have the highest coefficient of interbreeding in Europe.”

When it comes to residential segregation, in a country where 14 walls and barriers were erected in the last couple of years to separate Roma from the rest of society, a recent survey confirmed that things are getting worse. Greater numbers of Roma live in poor and segregated settlements in substandard housing, unprotected from environmental hazards that include toxic industrial waste, rubbish tips, seasonal flooding, and the intermingling of waste and drinking water. In January five children died, one froze to death and four died in fires in such shocking conditions. In a public statement following these tragedies, ERRC President Đorđe Jovanović described these small children as “the fatal casualties of more than two decades of discriminatory neglect in housing policies for marginalised Roma communities.”When it comes to racial segregation and discrimination, Slovakia has become Europe’s own ‘Deep South’.

When it comes to racial segregation and discrimination, Slovakia has become Europe’s own ‘Deep South’. Amongst many Roma there is a sense of resignation that EU inclusion strategies won’t make a whit of a difference, that discrimination is so normal and pervasive that it’s just not possible to get justice. As one activist put it: “With or without the EU Roma Framework, access to justice within a prompt a timely framework should be a priority, a fundamental right in every democratic society; where the victims can feel that something happened to remedy what is wrong and unjust, to make it right – this is the justice we need – but it’s the justice we don’t have.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks echoed such sentiments and expressed his ‘serious concern’ with the “persistent manifestations of anti-Gypsyism and hate speech, and instances of excessive use of force by the police during raids in Roma settlements.” He stated that the authorities seriously underestimate the incidence and implications of racist hate crime, including racially motivated police violence, affecting Roma. Muižnieks called for “more and resolute efforts to condemn, effectively investigate and sanction such crimes,” and urged Slovakia to protect the human rights of Roma “in line with the Council of Europe standards.” In this context he called for the creation of an “independent and effective complaints mechanism covering all law enforcement bodies to fight racially motivated police violence, and establish accountability for all human rights violations.”

The recent general election successes of the neo-Nazi party "Kotleba - People's Party Our Slovakia" (LSNS) sent shock waves across Slovakia. More than 200,000 voters cast ballots for LSNS, giving it 8 % of the vote and 14 seats in Parliament. This should not have come as a surprise, for this is what happens when mainstream parties embrace racist and populist agendas. This should not have come as a surprise, for this is what happens when mainstream parties embrace racist and populist agendas.

While the European Union ponders what action to take against the governments of Poland and Hungary for their transgressions, it should pay closer heed to happenings in Slovakia as it continues to fall short of ‘Council of Europe standards’ in a seemingly inexorable shift to the dark side of democracy: illiberal, majoritarian, Christian and national.

April 8 marked International Roma Day and European institutions lined up to signal their recognition of the place of Romani people in society, and the need for more inclusion. This recognition is welcome, but it would be more useful to hear from these institutions what it’s going to take to deliver basic justice beyond racism in 21st century Europe.

About the author

Bernard Rorke was born in Dublin and has lived in Budapest since 1997. He has an MSc in Politics and Sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London and a PhD from the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He has been active on Roma issues for over 15 years, and currently works as advocacy officer for the ERRC and teaches Roma Rights at the Central European University, Budapest.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.