‘Justified’ police lawlessness against the Roma community: a recent case from Belarusicelds
Prologue: a police officer murder as a trigger
On 16 May 2019, Belarusian media informed that a road police officer was abducted in the country’s third-largest city of Mahilioŭ. A few hours later his body was found in the periurban forest with a gunshot wound in his head. The media reported the alleged suspect profile that the abducted officer supposedly managed to send via Viber messenger. As a result, the police initially started searching for the three Roma men in a black GAZ Volga with Russian registration plates. On 20 May, the Investigative Committee informed that the road police officer committed suicide and staged his murder. Therefore, the said Viber message was necessary for him to put the investigation on the wrong track.
Legal lawlessness: several days of a nightmare for the Roma community in Mahilioŭ
The logic of the police was quite simple as the abduction version had initially been considered as the primary one. This strategy resulted in the mass police raids in the Mahilioŭ’s neighborhoods of Čapajeŭka and Hrabianiova with sizeable Roma communities in the night when the officer’s body was discovered. The locals pointed out that in Čapajeŭka police took all adult Roma men, some teenagers and most of the women. Only elderly Roma people and young children remained at large. According to the testimonies of the local Roma, the police acted cruelly, used strong language and did not explain why people were detained. Some 100 members of the Roma community from both the neighborhoods were taken by the police.
The authorities said that the members of the Roma community were interrogated and released. The Roma women were released after seven hours of detention on 17 May in the morning. Most of the men were released on 19 May.
In its statement, the Investigative Committee underlined that none of the detained Roma was accused of the said crime. However, according to the members of the Roma community, all detained Roma men were charged with petty hooliganism. However, they were not provided with the copies of police charge sheets and it is not clear whether they would come before the court.
In his comment about the situation, Ihar Shunevich, Belarus’ Minister of Internal Affairs, claimed that the activities of the police were fully justified by the situation it had to address. In his view, all these screenings and detentions were a necessary measure. He also said that he has neither a reason nor grounds to ask the Roma community for any apology.
The activities of the police towards the Roma community after the accident in Mahilioŭ give us reasons to address three major aspects which seem to be crucial for the assessment of the situation of the Roma community in Belarus.
When personal factors matter: how police treat the entire community?
Oleg Kozlowski, head of the Public Association “Belarusian Romani Diaspora”, stressed that the police made its raids in the Roma neighborhoods not only in Mahilioŭ but throughout the country. He emphasized that the Roma community understands the need to combat grave crimes, but these accidents should not be the reason for detention because members of the Roma community should be treated like all other citizens of Belarus. According to Kozlowski, such raids in the Roma neighborhoods in Belarus are held regularly. The police perform mass screening at least once a year and typically comes to the neighborhoods after grave crimes.
In his comment, Kozlowski compared these practices with the situation in Germany in the 1930s under the Nazi rule. In his view, the stance of the authorities towards the Roma community significantly deteriorated with the appointment of Ihar Shunevich as the Minister of Internal Affairs in May 2012. Kozlowski underlined that all the orders to check, search and detain members of the Roma community are oral. This situation does not allow Belarusian Roma to appeal to the police since they cannot refer to any written instruction due to their absence.
On 10 June 2019, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka dismissed Shunevich. However, this decision was neither directly related to the degrading treatment of the members of the Roma minority by the police in May, nor to informal police practices of ethnic profiling aimed at the members of this community.
A grave crime as an opportunity to address the problem of Roma ethnic profiling?
Following the police raids in Mahilioŭ and other cities, the human rights defenders from Human Rights Center “Viasna” filed an appeal to the Prosecutor General of Belarus to investigate the activities of the police. The human rights defenders argue that the raids and subsequent detainments were an example of ethnic profiling. Hence, they were illegal and inconsistent with the numerous procedures established by domestic legislation. Moreover, the alleged charges of Roma men with petty hooliganism were nothing more than an attempt by the police to cover up its illegal activities.
The Mahilioŭ Roma community members wrote a collective appeal to Mikhail Rusy, assistant to President in charge of the Mahilioŭ region. They asked for the protection from unjustified pressure and intimidation, as well as the ethnic profiling of the Roma people by the police.
Following all said developments of the situation, on 23 May the authorities invited some 30 representatives of the Mahilioŭ Roma community to the meeting with Natallia Kachanava, chairwomen of the Administration of the President of the Republic of Belarus. Kachanava said that she came to Mahilioŭ tasked by President Lukashenka to sort out the situation after numerous media reports. Members of the Roma community underlined that they want the state to stop this kind of raids and detainments and to ensure them the opportunity to live and work peacefully. Kachanava and other representatives of the authorities asked the Roma community to accept the apology and assured them that these raids and detainments would not repeat in the future. Moreover, Mikhail Rusy also told that the authorities plan to more thoroughly address the problems of the Roma community shortly.
Kachanava’s reference to media reports is very important for the assessment of the entire situation. Although members of Belarus’ Roma community have been long the subjects of ethnic profiling by the police, these issues never became a mainstream topic for the media. They were addressed either by the representatives of the Roma community or by some human rights defenders. This situation produced a huge public debate in society. Moreover, largely because of the police brutality and the said comments of Shunevich reported by the media the members of the Roma community were able to address their problems directly to the high-ranking public officials.
Patterns of discriminatory attitudes
Belarus’ Roma community is relatively small in comparison to other Central and Eastern European countries. According to the 2009 national census, 7,079 Roma live in Belarus, although Roma activists claim that the number of Belarusian Roma is as high as 60,000 people. However, this community largely faces the same patterns of discriminatory attitudes as elsewhere in the region.
For instance, the situation of the Roma community in Belarus was highlighted in the recent report submitted by Anaïs Marin, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, as a part of the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council Forty-first session which took place from 24 June to 12 July 2019. The Rapporteur’s assessment was attributed to the subsection Racial discrimination (para 70 to 72) within section Non-discrimination of the report). Because of the report’s time frame from 1 May 2018 to 31 March 2019, the incident with the members of the Roma community in Mahilioŭ in May was not covered. However, Marin underlines that the Roma community is being continuously discriminated against. She specifically mentioned “racial profiling” by law enforcement authorities, which results in “police harassment of Roma children, men and women, including repeated compulsory fingerprinting and arbitrary detention.” Additionally, employment discrimination is mentioned as employers allegedly prefer not to hire Roma candidates. Another issue of concern is “discriminatory attitudes against Roma” observed in “public statements and social media postings”. Finally, the problem with identity documents for “some Roma” is listed. Those who do not possess identity documents face difficulties in finding jobs and obtaining citizenship. The latter requires a clean police record which can be a problem for many Roma due to administrative charges, “including those for living without identity documents”. However, the Rapporteur does not provide any specific figures as to the number of members of the Roma community in Belarus facing this problem.
The incident in Mahilioŭ revealed several systemic problems in the relations between the Belarusian state and the country’s Roma community. At the same time, it should be considered as an important opportunity to address these issues.
First, because of media engagement, it became possible to involve top-ranking officials in the discussion. While commenting on this issue, President Lukashenka stressed that the police in its work should be closer to the people and directly look into the matter. If the police took something too far, like it was in the situation with the Roma minority in Mahilioŭ, it should apologize to the people. Lukashenka underlined that police must not perceive all people as its enemies. He said that the Roma people in Belarus should not be stigmatized due to negative stereotypes and prejudices. He specifically stressed that justice should be the main principle of the police work, and its role is to protect but not offend the people.
Second, after the official apologies of the authorities for unjustified cruelty towards the members of the Roma community in Mahilioŭ, the authorities promised to more thoroughly address the needs of this community. However, no further information pertinent to the concrete measures undertaken by the authorities is available so far.
Third, the situation demonstrates the importance of personality factor in the implementation of some disgraceful practices by the police. With this regard, the dismissal of the former interior minister Shunevich can provide some hope that the police would stop its informal practices of ethnic profiling aimed at the members of the Roma community in Belarus.
Image: The House of Soviets in Mahilioŭ. © Kiryl Kascian.