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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.

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