Roma people and police

On April 8, 2014, expert meeting of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights ”Police and Roma and Sinti — Current Challenges and Good Parctices in Building Trust and Understanding” was held, which was devoted to relations between the law enforcement agencies and Romani people. More than 20 experts from OSCE countries – representatives of NGOs involved with these issues, representatives of Romani communities and police departments of various countries gathered together to discuss their visions and experience and share with their colleagues from different countries. Sergey Mikheyev, lawyer of ADC “Memorial” and one of the authors of report “Roma people, migrants, activists – victims of police arbitrariness”, and Loé Lagrange spoke about the cases of violation of the rights of Roma in Russia, such as massive police raids “Roma Settelement”, illegal searches of Roma houses and detentions of Roma people.

Stereotype concerning “strong criminality” of Roma people exists in popular consciousness in many countries, including Russia. It is supported by the media, same as some other xenophobic stereotypes. Police officers, being members of society themselves, are also carriers and promoters of these prejudices, which is especially dangerous and unacceptable: they should not be prejudiced against any particular people and should act strictly according to the law.

Unfortunately there is often no trust at all between the Roma people and police. According to a poll held in OSCE countries over 65% of Roma respondents abstain from calling the police in cases when the presence of police officers is required. On the other hand over 50% of Roma respondents indicated that they had been arrested improper detentions based on their ethnicity. Idaver Mamedov, representative of OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues, reported that between 2008 and 2013 no significant changes occurred in relations between Romani people and police officers. He also added that over the same period of time European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) made at least 8 rulings in favor of Roma claimants in cases concerning violence and torture by policemen during detentions. These statistics indicate that the problem of police arbitrariness towards Romani people is a real one and that the situation has to be improved.

Participants of the meeting also reported about positive examples and measures aimed at building and improving trust between Romani people and police. For example, in Serbia special police schools were established recently, where police officers study Romani language and culture. Special “poly-ethnic” training sessions were organized in Slovenia in order to instruct police officers how to work in areas populated by Romani people. Several Eastern European countries practice hiring Romani people into police units, while mass media reports not only negative, but also positive events that take place in Romani communities. Coordinator of Czech NGO “Konexe” reported some positive changes in the activities of police in his country during massive anti-Roma manifestations, which took place in several Czech cities last year. It was the police, who defended Roma people against pogroms and racial violence in a courageous and highly professional manner.

On our part, as a Russian NGO that is dealing with issues related to promoting tolerance for Roma people, we had no positive examples to share concerning the treatment of Roma by the Russian police. The topic of the report presented by ADC “Memorial” was the growth of xenophobic attitudes in Russia and arbitrary actions of Russian police officers aimed against Roma people. We reported cruel treatment during detentions and placement in detention centers, arsons of Roma houses, special police raids branded “Roma” and “Roma Settlement”, which were held in various locations in Russia, often involving “volunteers”.

Growth of xenophobia in the Russian society is noticeable on various levels, this includes adoption of homophobic legislation, toughening of immigration regulations, xenophobic rhetoric of Russian state officials and as a result of that the growing feeling of impunity of those who are ready to step up their actions and perpetuate violent hate crimes. General growth of racism and xenophobia is also noticeable among police officers, who often demonstrate intolerance to “people with non-Slavic appearance” and use ethnicity of race as a criteria for suspicion (so called “profiling”, which is prejudiced attitude against visual minorities).

In such an atmosphere mere tolerance to minorities on the part of Russian police, be it Roma people or LGBTI persons, or attempts to prevent violence coming from the “Cossacks” or fundamentalist Orthodox activists look as something extraordinary, almost a heroic act. But this should be the norm, not an exception, and if we look at Roma people and police in OSCE countries, these norms are outlined in “Guidebook on Democratic Policing” and Guidelines of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities or the Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within OSCE.

I highly doubt that these documents are known to Russian policemen even by name, although they should be observed in our country. So how the positive experience we have learned about during the meeting in Warsaw could be broadcasted to Russian policemen? I think that there is a much greater problem with police in Russia now, not just the fact that it is not up to international standards in terms of dealing with Roma people or any other minorities: policemen in Russia often simply don’t understand, don’t want to know or remember that their duty is to serve the society and its citizens and that police is an institution for observing human rights, not a punitive organ.

Following the meeting it was decided to improve coordination between NGOs and state authorities, which deal with the problems of Romani people, as well as to make some recommendations to police officers. However, whether and how the latter will be implemented in Russia remained an open question.

by Sergey Mikheyev