Police raids against Romani people in Belarus

Belarus is a party to most of the universal international human rights treaties. The tasks listed in the Interagency Plan to Implement the Recommendations of the UN UPR (2016) include analyzing legal acts for anti-discrimination norms and determining the expediency of preparing a comprehensive legal act banning discrimination. However, the position of state agencies in Belarus is that it would be unwise to adopt a single framework law, since non-discrimination provisions are already enshrined in a number of statues and regulations.

The unconscionable antimigrant raids in May 2019 only served to emphasize how inadequate government policy on national minorities is from the standpoint of banning discrimination.

On May 16, 2019, a police officer in Mogilev disappeared and was later found dead. A text message containing a vague reference to “three Roma” had been sent from his personal telephone. After this, urgent measures were introduced to increase vigilance among police officers.

Late in the evening of the same day, police officers conducted an operation to detain men, women, and adolescents 12 and over from Romani families in Romani districts of Mogilev. According to local residents interviewed, in most cases the officers acted cruelly, used obscenities, and took people into the precinct and the pretrial detention facility without any explanation. An official representative of the Investigative Committee said that no one had been arrested in a criminal case, but Romani people interviewed said that almost 80 people in Chapaevka and 150 people in Grebenevo were arrested.

According a woman who was arrested and witnessed the incident, she and her husband were taken to the Lenin District Police Precinct of Mogilev, where she saw a line of men and women standing with their faces to the wall. They were all forced to undress for a search. One bottle of water was provided for 30 people. “When they started to question me, they screamed, cursed, said all sorts of terrible things,” she said. According to her, the women were released around 4am along with some senior citizens and minors. The men remained at the precinct and the detention facility; some of them were held in the gym of the Lenin and Oktyabr police precincts for a brief period. Almost 100 people were detained. They spent up to three days in custody. After their release, several people reported that they were tortured to obtain a false confession.

These arrests were made outside the procedural framework of a criminal case investigation: they were recorded as administrative arrests for petty hooliganism (supposedly for relieving oneself in public). Thus, these people did not have the set of guarantees offered to suspects, including the right to defense, the right of minors to have a legal representative, the right to know the substance of the allegations, and so forth. The arrests were accompanied by abuse of power on the part of police officers and the use of cruel and degrading treatment.

Prior to the raids in May, the Roma community felt that it was under constant monitoring and pressure (residents of Chapaevka and Grebenevo were arrested, fingerprinted, and photographed). But the raids and the reporting on them made Roma families fearful of pogroms: An informant reported that “We didn’t allow our children to go to school; we ourselves were scared to go out. All of Mogilev was saying ‘The gypsies from Chapaevka killed the traffic officer.’ They threatened to burn us up. But what are we guilty of?”

The police operation was carried out under the direct control of senior Ministry of Internal Affairs staff. The Prosecutor General’s Office conducted a surface review of the violations committed by police officers, and I. Shunevich, Minister of Internal Affairs, stated that the police officer’s actions were correct and that he had no reason to ask for forgiveness from the Roma community. On May 23, the head of the president’s administration and representatives of local government bodies met with a group of Roma (about 30 people) to convince the Roma that the authorities were favorably inclined to them. The president expressed himself in a similar vein. In and of itself, this rhetoric is offensive and discriminatory, as is the substitution of “oral excuses” for legal actions (effective investigation of abuse of power and other violations by the police).

In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council expressed concern about manifestations of discrimination against Roma people, including the incitement of hatred and racial profiling by law enforcement bodies. The Council’s recommendation to eradicate these phenomena has gone unfulfilled.

Lawyer Pavel Sapelko, “Viasna” Human Rights Center, Belarus