Legal help to Roma: obstacles and possibilities

This year my Roma friends invited me to Sablino to celebrate the Easter. As always on this day, there were lots of music and people. We cheered each other, sang Romani and Russian songs, danced to Romani and modern music. Some time later people got tipsy, the talks grew louder. The men discussed the business (contracts, exchanges etc.). By the end of celebration one of the girls asked me: “I saw you on TV. What do you do?” The guests listened to us. One man, around 60 years old, asked to turn off the music. Then I told them that the 8th of April is the International Roma Day and in 1971 the first World Romani Congress took place in London on that day. This year the TV channel 100TV invited me to the show to tell about our life and traditions. I told them how I live and what I do. I also told them about Memorial and our activities: that our lawyers give advice to Roma people for free and that our applicants are often afraid to finish the trial, and their problems remain unsolved.

I work in Memorial for 7 years. When I started this job I thought it would be easy for me as a Roma woman to work with my people. I hoped I could help many of them as I knew how difficult for illiterate people to overcome a pile of documents they need to prepare to solve any question – legal, medical or social one.

Unfortunately, we have had many misunderstandings with Roma.  It can be explained by many reasons. Sometimes it is due to illiteracy: the Roma do not understand how important is to stand for your rights on a legal basis. Sometimes it is due to laziness: people do not want to work, stand in a queue or bring papers to some office. One more possible reason is that when people come to us, they tell us different story, not the one that happened. Very often they just do not want to have any arguments with the police. I will give several examples.

Petr, a young Roma guy from the town of Opochka, wanted to buy some champagne before the Christmas. At the same time a drunk policeman came into the shop. He tried to take the bottle away from Petr and then beat him. The saleswomen were shocked: “Why are you beating the man, he didn’t do anything”! Then the policeman took Petr outside and continued beating him there. He kicked him and hit with a stick. Petr was only trying to protect his head with the hands. A few minutes later a police car arrived, the policeman sat in and went away. Roma men passing by saw bleeding Petr, called for a taxi and brought him home. His sister called me and asked for help. I went to Opochka and met with his family. Petr was in bed: he could barely move a hand, he had bruises all over his body. All his relatives asked our organisation to punish the injurer. All Roma population of Opochka were very angry. They knew the same situation could happen to them any other day.

Next morning we had to go to the doctor to confirm bodily blows and receive medical aid. But when I came to Petr’s house, he was drunk. He asked to stay, promised not to drink on the other day and go to the doctor together. But the next day he was drunk again. He told me he could not give up drinking because of the pain, alcohol makes it smoother. Petr’s family never filed any complaint against the policeman.

A few months later Petr was arrested and accused in robbery. At the police station he was beaten again. This time he did not stand it and died. I came to Opochka, but Petr’s family avoided me and then asked not to take any actions against the police. I understood that they were simply frightened. They say: “You go away, but we’ll live with this police. We are afraid they can plant the drugs on us or arrest and do what they want knowing they will not be punished”. A frightened person does not want to deal with the police and does not complain. Policemen feel owners of the town. According to the Roma, the more powerful is right.

Petr’s brother Nikolai asked our organisation to help with receiving new passport – his old Soviet passport was lost. Nikolai knew how important to have an identity document, moreover he travels a lot at his job. We went to Opochka with our lawyer. Nikolai was afraid of police although he never dealt with them. He was afraid that if he goes to the police station he will be immediately arrested as a passportless person and beaten and then accuse in crimes he never committed. We begged him to go with us to the passport office. Finally, we went there but when it was our turn to go into the room we had literally to push Nikolai inside. The receipt was received, and we needed to bring documents to the court. This is the procedure to receive a new passport in Nikolai’s case. But we did not manage to bring him there. His mother, illiterate Romani woman, has been trying for several years to bribe the officers and get Nikolai a new passport. They take money, but do not give a passport…

Here is an example of laziness and irresponsibility of people who ask us for help. Maria lived in Opochka. When her husband died, she moved to Gatchina and got married again. She is a mother of many children. A long time ago she lost her passport and did well without it until the time when she gave a birth to another son and she wanted to receive child allowance. Besides that her older children needed to receive their passports. She came to us and asked for help in solving this problem. First, we had to renew the lost passport. I went to Opochka to learn when she was registered for the last time and if her children had certificates of birth. But only Maria could get all these documents personally. I and our lawyer asked Maria to go to Opochka and finish this case. We even offered to bring her from Gatchina  to Opochka by car and book a room in hotel so she could sleep a night there. But she was always looking for an excuse not to go. She still has no documents. How can we help people who do not do anything for themselves?

The same can be said about Konstantin from Pskov. He told me that he worked at a factory since 2007, but in 2009 the factory got bankrupted. Konstantin had documents confirming that the factory was responsible to pay 47,000 rubles to him but he does not know how to get these money. I explained that he should make a copy of this paper and go to the court. The case was easy, and our lawyers were ready to help him. He would get the compensation for sure. But I never managed to see him again: he was always busy.

A similar story happened to Violetta from Saint Petersburg. She lives with a husband and two small children. She does not receive child allowances and  has no “maternal capital” for the second child and has an invalid passport. Our lawyer explained me in detail what she should do to receive a new passport and get registered at her husband’s place. Violetta went to the village of Annino in the Lomonosovsky district and asked for a copy of a document confirming she is no longer registered at her previous place of residence. The workers of the office refused and shouted at her. Then we decided to go there together and write an appeal to receive needful documents. To get a new passport Violetta had to pay 5000 rub fee. Our lawyer explained that she could pay the fee part by part but it is very important to write an appeal. Violetta decided to collect money. As a result, no appeal obtained, no fee paid, no passport received.

All guests were listening to me with great attention. Then they said that our youth should be educated and progressive. One woman who came from Pskov was very interested in our educational programme. Her daughter this year had to finish school, and she wanted to continue studies at university and our organisation could help her with that. Everyone agreed that education became essential for Roma children. There was no one in the room whose children would not go to school.

Then we talked about our parents and those Roma who fought in World War II. The conversation became really hot when we talked about drugs. This issue is topical for everyone. The people said that their families suffer from this problem but they do not know how to fight against it.

In the end I wanted to say that I attended many Romani celebrations . The Roma people can enjoy their celebrations. But this time people discussed very important serious topics. These problems are so important, that even celebration laid aside. It was a big joy for me as a Romani woman. My people should wake up. We should discuss our problems. We should solve them together if we want our children to be more happy and feel equal with other citizens of the country. What will be the future of our children and our people depends only on us.

Antonina Sukhovskaya

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