PHOTO: LUKAS HOUDEK
The older man in this photo had long suffered from illness and passed away after the police raid. News server Romea.cz has been unable to confirm whether the raid was the immediate cause of his death or not.
On the morning of 11 January, a police intervention against Romani people took place in the Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod. The special police commando unit of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, "Berkut", broke into Romani dwellings in two localities, Radvanka and Telman, as well as other sites throughout Uzhhorod.
According to local Romani residents who witnessed the raid, police officers brutally beat men and women in their homes in front of their children while shouting racist insults and threats. Police are denying that any brutality occurred and have described the raid as a normal part of their investigation and prevention of crime. The Ukrainian media and the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) have been discussing the incident recently.
Several men beaten by the officers ended up in hospital, some with serious head injuries. Most were never charged with any crime and have since returned home. One man who had long suffered from tuberculosis passed away after the raid. News server Romea.cz was unable to learn whether the raid was the immediate cause of his death or not.
A resident of Uzhhorod who prefers to remain anonymous because he fears police reprisals confirmed the information reported by media outlets in the Zakarpattia region in a telephone interview with news server Romea.cz. According to his testimony, a raid was also performed in the Shachta quarter: "Police officers were not as brutal there and the local men managed to hide from the commando unit."
The resident said he believed the purpose of the raid was to investigate a murder, but police did not apprehend the perpetrator: "The police collectively blamed all of the Romani people for the murder. This is their usual approach when such crimes are committed, even if no one Romani was necessarily involved."
News server Chas Zakarpattia, in an article entitled "Berkut attacks Romani settlement in Uzhhorod" (available in Ukrainian only at http://chas-z.com.ua/crime/v-uzhgorodi-berkut-napav-na-romskiy-tabir-video), quotes Miroslav Horvát, the leader of the local Romani youth organization, Romaňi čercheň, as saying this was no ordinary search as police have claimed. Horvát said Berkut used tear gas and truncheons against peaceful, unarmed people "irregardless of the fact that there were children, disabled people, elderly people, and pregnant women present."
Chas Zakarpattia has published a video online including testimony by residents of the settlement of Telman about the commando unit's actions. "The police invaded the settlement and beat up my brother in our home. The officers beat us up and pulled me by the hair. They said we should all be slaughtered. A Gypsy has no rights here," one of the residents of Telman says in the video footage.
Another witness in the video says: "It was 7:20 AM. I was sleeping and suddenly people started to shout that the police were there. They invaded our home, grabbed me and ordered me to lie or kneel on the ground. I told them I couldn't kneel because one of my legs is injured. They started shouting at me: 'We'll cut off your other one!' Then they beat me in the back and on the head." The Romani residents giving video testimony also said police threatened to perform such house searches every day if they ever spoke to the media about what Berkut was doing.
The police raid involved two busloads of Berkut commandos. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry claims the operation was a normal one tasked with "stabilizing the situation, improving prevention and work in the fight against crime, detecting and apprehending persons involved in theft and in the illegal trade of arms and drugs, and identifying criminal elements", according to news server Chas Zakarpattia.
Ukrainian Police say their analysis shows that "theft is mostly committed by persons of Romani nationality. In 2011 there were 14 thefts of cast-iron grills and manhole covers, 12 thefts of parts from elevators, three thefts of lights, and four thefts of parts from furnaces."
The police information also states that in 2011, "25 people of Romani nationality" were prosecuted in Uzhhorod. "The prosecutions were mainly for theft, 20 robberies, and one narcotics sale." Police add that the raid was "completely legitimate, ordinary, comprehensive detective work. Similar investigations are performed by police in other towns than Uzhhorod and not just in the Romani community," the police statement reads.
The Uzhhorod resident told news server Romea.cz that Romani residents are afraid and that it is inconceivable to them that they could seek justice for the raid from official institutions. "They are afraid police would find them and beat them up," he said.
Romani residents say that police harassment, wherein officers arrest people for no reason on the street and then beat them up at police stations, is very frequent. Those afflicted see no one in their environment to whom they might be able to turn with a demand for justice.
The European Roma Rights Center has issued reports on the situation in Ukraine in recent years which confirm this repeated police harassment of Romani people. According to these reports and testimony from the scene, the problem faced by Romani people in the Zakarpattia region is not neo-Nazi or ultra-right groups as it usually is elsewhere. Instead, Romani people in that region fear police the most. Another problem is that civil society is weak in the region, specifically, there is an absence of human rights counseling centers or functioning organizations for the protection of minorities that Romani people could trust enough to turn to.
After the police raid on 11 January, the ERRC wrote a letter to the Uzhhorod Police director and the state prosecutor (see http://www.errc.org/article/ukrainian-authorities-must-investigate-violent-police-raid-against-roma-says-errc/3961). In the letter, the organization urgently demands the relevant authorities officially investigate the "violent police raid" in Uzhhorod. The organization also points out that given the many testimonies as to what happened, it is likely that the officers violated regulations during the raid.
The ERRC is primarily protesting against the fact that the Ukrainian Interior Ministry and police are linking crimes committed by individuals to the entire Romani community in Uzhhorod. "This raises serious questions as to the impartiality and legality of the action," the ERRC says in its letter.