Killing Time: The Lethal Force of Anti-Roma Racism

In the aftermath of the gun attack on a Roma family in Slovakia on June 17 by an off-duty policeman which left three dead and two wounded, there followed a surge of online support for the gunman. According to Irena Bihariová, from People against Racism: ‘“public discussions turned into mass glorification of the murderer and hateful responses towards the victims.” She warned of heightened inter-ethnic tension where public debate styled the assailant as a hero and the victims as the guilty parties. 

Earlier this year in April, in the neighbouring Czech Republic in the town of Chotěbuz, a Roma man was killed, shot in the head with a crossbow. The assailant claimed the victim was one of three men intent on committing a robbery, that he had been aiming at their feet. The victim’s cousin alleged that he shouted, “You black whores, I’ll kill you,” before deliberately taking aim and firing. The attacker later expressed his appreciation for the rally of support by the extremist Workers Social Justice Party, and the 600 signatures on a petition organized by local people in his defence.

Last January, two Roma brothers aged 22 and 24 were shot, the younger killed, by a 63-year-old local retired businessman who happened to be by the railway tracks on the outskirts of the Czech village of Desna at 1:30 a.m. and carrying a firearm. State attorney, Lenka Bradáčová immediately ruled out a racial motive, and on June 18 announced that the man would not be charged as he “used a firearm to prevent an attack on him and not to cause injury or death.”

That same week in January, in the Prague 3 district of Jarov, three youths confessed to the brutal murder of a Roma woman, who was beaten, kicked and stabbed to death. According to local residents, the attackers, known for giving Nazi salutes in the streets, had been harassing and assaulting homeless people in the area for weeks prior to the murder. One of the perpetrators was remanded in custody.

In the Czech town of Sokolov after an incident involving police officers, a 33-year-old Roma father of three, died in hospital on May 6. According to eye witness reports, police officers arrested Ludovít Kašpar, handcuffed him and then attacked him, kicking him and beating him. Official sources had no comment to make on the case, as it was under investigation and that any remarks would be purely speculative.

And in Romania, in May two young Roma men aged 24 and 18, were shot dead by police officers in separate incidents. The European Roma Rights Centre and Romani CRISS have demanded an independent and public investigation into the two fatalities, reminded the authorities that under international law the use of lethal force by police officers must be justified and proportionate, and called on them to condemn these deaths.

These latest killings, all occurring in the first half of 2012 cast a grim shadow over the European Union Roma Framework and all its lofty ambitions. Lethal summary justice, vigilante excesses and wanton bloody murder make a mockery of National Roma Integration Strategies. The detail in each of the above cases may differ and the circumstances may be disputed, but the one common denominator is that Roma people continue to die at the hands of state and non-state actors within the European Union.

These killings are not happening in a vacuum. According to Thomas Hammarberg, anti-Roma rhetoric from politicians and media has often preceded acts by vigilantes such as mob violence and pogroms, and “distorted minds” can and do understand such messages as a call “for action”: “We see today a growing number of attacks on Roma committed by individuals mobilized by racist anti-Roma ideology. These are premeditated attacks, with the intent to kill, that target random individuals or families because of their ethnicity.”

What is especially troubling about the wider phenomenon of anti-Roma violence in recent years is the indifference and ambivalence of the majority towards the victims. Worse still, acts of violence often prompt open support from sections of the wider public for those who would mete out rough and ready “justice” and inflict collective punishment on Roma.

Such violence often occurs where local and national politicians speak openly of the need to deal with “gypsies,” and appear to condone violent excesses as “understandable.” Perhaps the most notorious example was Italy in 2008. Following arson attacks on Roma camps, then Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni was quoted as having stated, “That is what happens when gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence,” and Umberto Bossi’s reported response to the outbreaks of mob violence was that “people do what the state can’t manage.”

On March 8 2011, a resolution of the European Parliament on Roma called on the European Commission to link social inclusion priorities to a clear set of objectives that included protection of citizens against discrimination in all fields of life; and for the Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to ensure full implementation of relevant legislation and appropriate sanctions against racially motivated crimes. This is all well and good, but the constant clamour for “Brussels” to do something should not obstruct the plain fact that primary responsibility to combat racism, protect citizens, diffuse tension and promote dialogue lies within Member States. 

Back in 1993 Vaclav Havel described the Roma issue as the litmus test for the new democracies. In 2012 it’s become a litmus test for democracies across the entire European Union. Today the reality for many Roma citizens remains one of dread and fear. The challenge facing Europe is to banish that fear, guarantee the safety and security of its citizens and ensure that the rule of law prevails without prejudice across all Member States.

21 Comments

Dear Giovanni - Thank you for the comments and the recommendation. I wasn’t aware that Michael Stewart’s book was already published. It is certainly a valuable resource

A forthcoming publication to look out for is Valeriu Nicolae, We are the Roma!: One Thousand Years of Discrimination (Manifestos for the 21st Century)
http://www.amazon.com/We-are-Roma-Discrimination-Manifestos/dp/0857420380

Excellent article.

Whose role is it to ensure member states are doing what they should to follow up on these crimes?

What NGOs are mobilizing local citizens, Roma and non-Roma alike, to ensure the justice system, judicial process and elected officials are held to high standards in performing their duties? Where is the follow through?

This has been happening for 20 years. Why has no NGO been following up on these types of crimes and pursuing them to the end? Why has Brussels not established some sort of commission or agency to perform this follow up when there is a clear lack of it?

Robert Kennedy sent in the FBI and his attorneys to investigate crimes against African Americans in the southern states during the 60s. Is there an EU equivalent of the Attorney General's office? Who will enforce the de-segregation of schools?

Why doesn't Merkel hold member states to the same standards for human rights as she does for fiscal compliance? Where are our elected European leaders on this issue?

Dear Bill - Thanks for the feedback. I look forward to the day when there will be the same sense of urgency about protection of human rights as there is concerning fiscal rectitude.
The Council of the European Union, in its conclusions adopted on 19 May 2011, endorsing the EU Framework, stressed that “the protection of fundamental rights, notably by combating discrimination and segregation, in accordance with existing EU legislation and the international commitments of the Member States, is essential for improving the situation of marginalised communities including Roma.” While this is encouraging little is changing on the ground. It’s time to look at the EU Race Equality Directive, remedy its shortcomings when it comes to combating anti-Roma racism, and for the EU to get robust about application of this Directive across all Member States.
However, there is only so much that the EU can do. MEPs from all the democratic groups in the European Parliament need to take the resolutions on Roma inclusion passed in Brussels and Strasbourg back home to their party colleagues, and apply pressure for compliance in the national parliaments and local municipalities of their respective Member States - back home where the primary responsibility lies to combat prejudice and promote equity.

An excellent article indeed! Europe is on its way to have a common currency for all Member States. There is growing awareness that a stable Euro requires political cooperation. Yet, populists manage to spread discord and promote nationalism and indirectly far right. There is hardly awareness that a stable Europe requires full implementation of fundamental rights. We do have an Agency: FRA, but its criticism has no impact. Of course Vaclav Havel was right, but in the total confusion of the current crises, the cry for scapegoats is louder than the cry for justice. Roma pay the price, but not only them. If we keep on blundering, we will all become victims. Crucial question: what will be dearer to us, our short-term sovereignty or our long-term civilization?

Thanks Els, and a note of appreciation for your long-standing support for the cause of Roma emancipation. Racism is not only an insult to the dignity and a threat to the safety of our fellow Roma citizens at the receiving end of discriminatory practices every day, but damaging to the entire society, and corrosive in that it devours the liberal content of our democracies. Unchecked and unremarked such prejudice can derail any progress that has been made on Roma inclusion. As we blunder through deepening economic crises which exacerbate material inequalities there is a need for increased vigilance against any attempts to downgrade the protection of the fundamental human rights of all minorities.

This is a really important piece which draws attention to several murders that have received very little exposure, and are in danger of being forgotten. Is there anyone systematically monitoring the police and public prosecutor's investigation of these murders? What concerns me is the growing evidence of police sympathy with the perpetrators of anti-Roma violence, and in some cases downright collusion with the far right.

Dear Liz – Thank you for your comments and I share your concerns. On monitoring, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the OSCE does important work on hate crime and produces an annual report Hate Crime, Incidents and Responses. But in the section on hate crimes against Roma and Sinti in the 2010 report, as you scroll through the country reports, with the exception of Sweden, the opening line is the same for all countries: “No official data on crimes or incidents motivated by bias against Roma and Sinti were reported to ODIHR.”

Most of the information comes from civil society sources. While to my mind Romea.cz remains the best source of constantly updated and fully reliable professional reporting on Roma issues and more, there is a need for comprehensive official data and reporting.

From the side of the states, this failure to report smacks of complacency bordering on contempt. As Human Rights First put it in a recent report: “… official monitoring of hate crimes that includes disaggregated public data on violence against Roma is practically nonexistent even among countries that have developed adequate monitoring systems on racist violence.”

Parallel to the EU Framework for Roma Integration, there is an urgent need for a robust and comprehensive Union-wide monitoring mechanism to keep track of incidents of hate speech and hate crime against Roma.

It is sad that we have people in some communities who are still living in the dark age where colour, skin, ethnicity, sex and religion are used to demonize others. Unless we take the bold step of shouting against these practices, some people are not going to change. Keep it up with such articles...

Is an article that makes you think about nationalism that pervaded Europe, and sometimes resurgent fascism. In Italy the situation is no better than that of the poorest countries of Eastern Europe or the Balkans. Here a couple of individual Roma fall of the whole community. Often the charges are false. In December of 2011 in Turin, a group of protesters wanting to avenge the rape of a girl by a Gypsy (an accusation proved false) set fire to their camp and risked trying to kill a number of Roma families from which most were children.

But the hatred against the Roma is not subsiding even when the truth is established by the investigations and, systematically, in the public perception and the media, the roles of victim and aggressor are reversed. And these days yet another assassination attempt against a Roma girl in Turin, which is attacked with a hail of gunfire because she was too close to a parked car. It will not be easy to overcome this moment. It's up to us all to be vigilant and resist any attack, ranging from verbal to physical, appealing to the laws and promoting the activation of Roma compared to legal and civil rights. By giving voice and dignity to those who now play only the role of the silent victim.

Please post about Roma cases in UK

Who owns the Media? Who controls it? Is it surprising that when black people are being brutalised, especially by the so called superior, more civilised races, the stories are not splashed all over?

This article is saddening without question. What I find even more sad, however, is the focus in the OSF on the growing problem of racism in Europe only in regards to the Roma community. We immigrants in Italy have been trying to fight the rising tide of racism for some time.

We have organized under the banner "non sono clandestino" developing programs and events/exhibits to raise awareness of the issues. We have elicited the support of OSF and similar insitutions warning of the growing risks...only to be told that ours was not a compelling issue.

The result:
- five of our senegalese supporters were shot, two killed, in a random act of violence against immigrants by a man who was educated by an ultra-right group;
- we alerted all the organizations of this and other developments, including the capture of another terrorist cell intending to bomb markets all over Italy; and
- we organized an exhibit/event in Palazzo Vecchio, the most important building in Florence, with the assistance of the Uffizzi, numerous immigrant communities and professionals using our own resources.

Yet, to date, neither the OSF nor other institution will even communicate what is transpiring because we include all not just Roma or just Africans or just anyone! To care about fighting racism means a program of inclusion not exclusion.

I have the utmost respect for OSF and their work. Truly! I am a photojournalist and often use them as an example of positive action. Yet, on this particulare front...i am disillussioned.

Mark Abouzeid
Economist, photojournalist and human rights activist.

Dear Mark,

We are indeed working urgently on these issues in Italy, including mobilizing to combat discrimination and violence directed against the immigrant community as well as Roma and Sinti. This work has included supporting local groups, and pursuing advocacy at the European and UN level to ensure that the Italian government lives up to its international obligations to protect minorities and migrants.

The following Voices highlight some of the work we are supporting:

1) Top Human Rights Official Censures Italy http://www.soros.org/voices/top-human-rights-official-censures-italy

2) Welcome to Italy: Five Filmmakers, One Film http://www.soros.org/voices/welcome-italy-five-filmmakers-one-film

3) UN Committee Rebukes Italy over Minority Discrimination http://www.soros.org/voices/un-committee-rebukes-italy-over-minority-dis...

4) Closed Sea: Documentary Examines Italy’s Controversial “Pushbacks” of Migrants http://www.soros.org/voices/closed-sea-documentary-examines-italy-s-cont...

If you would like more information about our work in Italy, please email me at jbirchall@justiceinitiative.org

Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall/Open Society Justice Initiative

Thank you for your considered reply. I will look into the links you provide. I am pleased to such so much organised effort but maybe we need to collaborate on the actual activities and results...as one in the trenches, I can only tell you that things are going to get much worse across the racial spectrum. While I work with the Roma community, like many, my experience leads me to give more effort to those communities that want to work towards change...unfortunately with the Roma, we are often seen with mistrust and apathy...as if we are forcing change that is not very welcome. It is very complex and I do not do credit to the issues here. Thank you for your continued efforts.

Bemoaning racism won't help much here I think. I have pretty good anti-racist credentials (summer with SCLC in 1966, etc), but I think the fundamental problem is the behavior of the Roma and that the key to fixing this is to cut their fertility rate and educate them (related issues since many Roma girls have children at young ages). Obviously this means more social services for Roma or better incentives to require them to stay in school and not have teenage mothers. Current demography leads to this violence. Slovaks having less than replacement numbers of kids (hence exponential decline), Roma, many living on the taxes paid by Slovaks, unemployed and having more than replacment numbers of kids, hence exponential increase. In other words, I see the demography and behavioral issues, which go back to institutions that create the wrong incentives (including both the welfare system and the Roma culture) as needing reforms. Otherwise this problem just gets worse. Treating symptoms won't be effective without treating the causes.

The real underlying problem is demography--as with many of Europe's current discrimination issues. The Roma have too many children too young, leading to exponential growth in their numbers. Many live on public assistance from the Slovaks who have few kids and so are in exponential decline in numbers. This is a formula for problems and cannot continue long run. Institutions need to be changed to give incentives for Roma girls to stay in school and have fewer children and to change Roma culture to foster more responsible behavior. Without that, exhortations against racism won't solve the problem in the long run.

It makes you feel so powerless to read this and so appalled for a second generation Holocaust survivor whose family knows what the end of persecution looks loke. Unless we have powerful institutions committed to the values of human rights and prepared to act and individuals committed to taking local action to help others, then the world is lost. We need to educate people, apply as much pressure as possible, but how. What can I do - please tell me and I will do it. I was recently in Budapest and witnessed a rally of the far right and it was just dreadful and unbelievable. I went to observe this and was horrified, along with many other international visitors. I was not afraid but could not understand how this could hppen without some sort of local protest. In Britain there is the EDL but for sure there would have been an anti-demonstration. In Hungary there was zilch and the Hungarian police stood by........even though it is unlawful.

I suppose the only solution to this problem is to give many facilities to the new generations of Romas so they can learn, study... as much as possible.

This is, indeed, profoundly sad and scary, and must be fought both with short-term measures (this kind of publicity plus op eds/letters to the editor in local and national papers, drawing attention to the problem via FaceBook and other social media, etc.) and longer-term ones such as the social services Max Kummerow suggests. EU political leaders must be made to feel the pressure to step up vigilance against crimes against humanity, and to mount sanctions against offending states. I'm posting this on FaceBook, following the link to the article, and I encourage others to do likewise.

One of the problems is that people from a young age are not taught how inhuman racism is. Many people are simply racist out of ignorance and accepting that it is the norm. Children should be taught from a young age how distastefull and ignorant racism really is. We should show are children more documentaries from the second world war on racism and documentaries on racism in South Africa during the apartheid era to educate the youth on what racism really is about. Trillions and trillions of dollars were wasted on keeping racism thriving in South Africa. That money could have been spent on education,health care and homes instead it was spent on breading racism. Racism is one of the worst social cancers ever.

Add your voice