I represent the interests of the Roma living in the settlement of Ust-Abakan. This community of 250 people moved there in 2000.
In May 2018, the Roma members of the settlement’s population started receiving threats because of an everyday conflict that spiraled into a brawl and the death of one of the participants. That night, funeral wreaths were brought to the street where Roma lived. Sensing danger, the Roma fled the settlement. Over the next several days, local residents destroyed and looted Roma homes with the connivance of officials. It was only after reports about this appeared in the media that the police took measures to record the number of homes damaged and formally identify the guilty parties.
Roma started returning to the village in July and August of 2018. Village authorities, most likely in concert with more senior officials, actively impeded the Roma’s return to their homes: They demanded that the Roma present documents confirming ownership of each house and, with the help of police officers, forbade them from occupying homes for which they could not present documents.
In September 2018, the village administration, understanding that forcibly blocking the return of the Roma could attract the attention of the media, filed a lawsuit to compel the demolition of 13 Romani homes. As the court was considering this lawsuit, three homes were burned down at one-month intervals. A local resident was identified as the suspect in one of the arsons in January 2019. The people who burned down the other two homes have not yet been found.
On February 21, 2019, the first instance court rejected the administration’s lawsuit on demolition and justified its decision as follows:
– in 2000, the administration granted a plot of land to the Roma to build homes;
– the Roma have lived openly in the village since this time, and the authorities never took any measures to ensure that the Roma followed administrative procedures when using this plot;
– the village’s location plan, which regulates the procedure for land use in the village, was issued by the local government after the Roma built their houses and did not take account for the houses already standing;
– the administration was not able to provide the court with sufficient information to find that the Roma houses violated anyone’s interests.
In response to the administration’s appeal, on May 30, 2019 the second instance court issued a conflicting decision requiring the Roma to raze 13 of their homes.
Notably, the second instance court did not investigate any new evidence. It based its conclusion that the homes must be demolished on the fact that the Roma did not present any official documents attesting to their ownership of the land plots and that the location of the homes did not correspond to the village’s location plan. The court’s main argument was the lack of evidence that the village administration had permitted these specific Roma to use the land plot for construction back in 2000.
The decision entered into force as soon as it was announced and was referred for enforcement one month later. At the request of the homeowners, the first instance court granted a one-year extension for enforcing the decision, but they still ended by having to take down one home.
Over 50 people have now been left homeless as the result of the second instance court’s decision, which violates the practice of the European Court of Human Rights and constitutional law of Russia.
In its judgments, Russia’s Constitutional Court declared that the demolition of unauthorized structures and residences essentially amounted to a sanction for breaking the law. To legally apply this sanction, it would be necessary to establish the guilt of the people who erected the structures and to identify the public interests that these structures harmed.
In our case, neither the claimant as represented by the administration nor the second instance court were able to name the public interests that could be put above the right to housing. The court simply sidestepped this question by ignoring the Constitutional Court’s explanations.
However, the failure of the authorities to act over an extended period did lead to a significant violation of the Roma’s rights: For almost 20 years, no official at any level took any systemic measures to legalize the structures or explain the negative consequences during construction.
In 2009, the administration also filed a lawsuit demanding the demolition of Roma homes located on this same plot. The court followed the practice of the European Court of Human Rights and denied the demolition.
The 2019 court decision ordering demolition is glaring evidence that the situation of compliance with human rights is changing for the worse: The court did not indicate any people or organizations whose rights were affected by the standing structures. Officials stated that the goal of demolition was to bring the location of the homes into compliance with the village plan. We attempted to point the problem out to the authorities after the demolition ruling. We asked for assistance finding housing for the families left homeless, but our requests were referred to the village administration, which was the official initiator of the demolition.
In this context, the authorities’ continuing failure to take any action to establish the identity of the people who participated in the pogroms and the arson appears particularly cynical. The only arsonist whose involvement in the crime has been established has not been prosecuted. The investigation into his criminal case has lasted for almost a year and evidence of his guilt has been collected, but the case has yet to be referred to court. Investigators have not taken any measures to compensate victims or restore the rights violated as a result of the crime.
Since the destruction of their housing in 2018, the Roma have feared a repeat of these events and are trying not to spoil relationships with their neighbors. The administration and the police have built their opposition to protecting Roma rights on this fear of a resurrected conflict, and government representatives have been issuing regular reminders that active protection of Roma rights could lead to a conflict with the local population.
By comparing the two court decisions, we can see that in 2009 the court was guided by international human rights norms, while in 2019, the court took a token approach that, given the already biased and xenophobic treatment of the Roma, violated their rights.
Valery Zaytsev, attorney