Roma in Slovakia: A raid turned violent
A VIOLENT police raid on a Roma settlement in eastern Slovakia is drawing condemnation from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and others. Yet it is the government’s politically-charged response that should be an even greater cause for concern. In a country with some of Europe’s worst living conditions for Roma, the heavy-handed tactics and ham-handed official inquiry that followed are the latest signs of the government of Robert Fico, the prime minister, taking an illiberal turn.
The events of June 19th are not in dispute. Just after 7pm, in an operation dubbed “Repressive-Search Action 100”, 63 police officers including masked riot police approached the Roma settlement informally known as Budulovska (pictured). About two kilometres outside the town of Moldava nad Bodvou, a dirt road is the lone entry point to this 800-person settlement on a rough patch of scrubland shielded from the main street. Police claimed to seek seven men, who were either criminals-at-large or suspects in open cases. As they combed the settlement’s favela-like shanties and dilapidated pre-fabricated concrete buildings, violence erupted. None of the men police were looking for was there, but they detained 15 others and several Roma were injured.
The interior ministry, which oversees policing, ordered an investigation, which cleared police of wrongdoing. The inquiry did not include interviewing Roma involved. The resulting report cited non-Roma residents of the nearby town complaining of “inappropriate” behaviour and “arrogance” by the Roma community. According to the ministry, Roma men aggressively confronted the baton, pepper spray and taser-wielding police. In one surreal story, a police officer, who was allegedly assaulted from behind with an axe, was said to have avoided serious injury because he “warded off the attack with his hand”.
“They were out of their mind,” says Milan Hudák, who claims he was tasered and beaten then taken to the police station for a second and third series of beatings. Morning-after pictures of Mr Hudák’s 130 pound frame and witnesses lend credence to his claims. Jana Dubovcová, Slovakia’s ombudswoman, found evidence of unlawful detention, illegal entries into homes, a lack of police documentation of the incident and no evidence Roma attacked police. She concluded police “violated fundamental rights” and that the ministry investigation “did not fulfil the requirement of independence”.
Such damning conclusions could serve as a check on the partiality of the interior ministry, but earlier this month a parliamentary committee, dominated by Mr Fico’s Smer party, shelved the report, blocking discussion before the full parliament. Robert Kaliňák, the interior minister and Slovakia’s second most powerful man, testified before the committee, which also declined to hear from the Roma who had journeyed 400 kilometres to Bratislava.
Mr Kaliňák is unapologetic over the raid, insisting such displays of force are both common and necessary. In an interview, he cited a personal commitment to financing two Roma children’s education in refuting allegations of racism, while touting a drop in crime during two ministerial tenures as evidence that aggressive policing works. He also pointed out that tough talk and securitising Roma issues is politically popular. In a separate trend, some Slovak cities have begun building segregation walls to isolate Roma neighbourhoods. Fourteen such fortifications now exist country-wide, according to the European Roma Rights Centre.
Mr Kaliňák’s rhetoric is emblematic of the Smer party, which controls on outright majority in parliament and runs a hefty clientelist network blending left-leaning labour policies with vaguely nationalist populism. Recently, the party has taken to using its political dominance to stack the judiciary with allies.
Meanwhile an estimated 200,000 of Slovakia’s half-million Roma live in 700 rural settlements, many dating back to the era of the Nazi-collaborationist government. On the day of our correspondent’s visit, Budulovska was preparing a funeral for a four-month-old baby. Unemployed men lingered in dirt streets, stray dogs and garbage were dominant landscape features and at least one resident openly huffed solvents. Surrounding grasslands double as a bathroom. With a 99% unemployment rate, welfare is the only income for most, according to ETP Slovensko, an NGO working in the settlement.Arrogance appears to be the least of Budulovska’s problems.