- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

The U.S. Helsinki Commission said last week that it had discerned a pattern of human rights abuse of Gypsies, also called Roma, in Russia.

The commission, an independent federal agency, encourages compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as it is formally named, especially respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In Russia, with a population of 144 million, 183,000 people declared themselves to be Roma in the 2002 census, though it is believed their number may be several times that figure.

Some Roma leaders put their numbers in Russia at around 1.2 million.

According to Dimitrina Petrova, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), “the economic and social situation of the Roma in Russia deteriorated during the first decade of post-communism at a speed much higher than of any other ethnic group.”

The image of Roma also suffered. Mrs. Petrova said racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance had a strong anti-Roma basis and played a role in their economic marginalization. Racist speech against Gypsies, Jews and people from the Caucasus republics feature among the new hate ideologies of Russia, she said.

This discrimination is reinforced by Russia’s internal-security policy, she said, through references to rhetorical “wars,” she added. The “war against terrorism,” the “war against corruption,” and the “war against drugs” focus on those three most stigmatized groups. Moreover, the war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks have led in recent years to a preoccupation with security at all levels of public life.

In the absence of anti-discrimination efforts by the government, Roma are subjected to discrimination in nearly all areas of public life, Mrs. Petrova said. Though the term “discrimination” appears in the Russian Constitution in the context of equal pay and employment conditions, no definition is offered by the law.

The 2002 Federal Law on Citizenship of the Russian Federation guarantees equal rights to all citizens, she said, but doesn’t mention access to citizenship regardless of race or ethnicity.

Roma Ural, the only Roma nongovernmental organization in the Sverdlovsk region, located 1,000 miles east of Moscow, monitored television and printed regional media. Most of the reports about Roma were negative, often representing them as enemies of society and criminals.

Alexander Todokhov, director of Roma Ural, cited a documentary, “A large and terrible invasion of drug dealers, mainly Gypsies, in Ekaterinburg” — the administrative center of the Sverdlovsk region — which was broadcast several times a day for a week.

“In those places where they were forbidden to sell drugs, they gave up their places of residence to invade the capital of the Ural to sell death, kill us and our children. … Drug money very quickly was turned into luxury palaces. … Gypsies were leading a beautiful and very contented life on the blood and bones of citizens.”

The Russian news media contributes to the perpetuation of anti-Roma racism by creating a strong association between Roma and crime, Mr. Todokhov said. The news media keep identifying Roma as the main actors in the Russia drug trade, using “drug-dealer” and “Gypsy” interchangeably.

“The results of the monitoring confirmed the trend that media create and develop negative stereotypes about the life of the Roma community,” Mr. Todokhov said. “Furthermore, journalists do not have objective information about Roma, preferring to use stereotypical terms.”

Anti-Roma sentiment in Russia has given rise to violence and abusive treatment against them.

ERRC research has shown that police violence against Roma is widespread.

Leonid Raihman of the Open Society Institute — a private foundation in New York City that serves as the hub of billionaire George Soros’ foundations and organizations in more than 50 countries — said police abuse against Roma frequently occurs in two situations.

“The first is when Roma are stopped on the street or approached in marketplaces and railway or bus stations for identity checks. The second is when the police conduct raids in Roma settlements,” he said.

According to the ERRC, Roma are stopped on the street for document checks more frequently than others. If they lack valid personal documents, especially residence registration on their passport — which is often the case — they are taken to the police station. There, they are threatened with long detention, big fines and further complications.

“The rule of law simply doesn’t work. Most Roma do not know their rights and can be easily manipulated,” said Mr. Raihman, explaining that Roma think the only way to be released is to pay a bribe.

ERRC officials said Roma settlements are raided by the police and special anti-drug units at any time of the day or night. When no drugs are found, the police threaten to “plant” drugs or use other forms of intimidation to extort money.

According to a report to the ERRC by a Roma man from Dyagrevo in Ryazan — a region in the center of Russia — on Aug. 22 the settlement was raided by six masked police officers who were drunk. They broke into houses and demanded that Roma give them money. Several people, including women, were beaten. They left the settlement with at least 10 Roma captives.

According to the man’s report, the police demanded 60,000 rubles (about U.S. $2,000) for their release. The Roma were released the same evening after the families collected the money and gave it to the police.

Kidnappings and extortion of Roma are becoming more and more frequent, Mr. Raihman said. Their presence is often regarded as a source of sure income by law enforcement officers.

“The seemingly endless cycle of bribes leads to further economic marginalization of Roma,” he added. “When a family has spent all its money and jewelry to pay bribes, as a next step, they sell their car if they have one. Next, they sell their home. For some time, it is possible to live with relatives in crowded rooms. And in the end, we meet the victims as homeless persons in the street or at the communal dump.”

According to the ERRC, Roma suspects are tortured and ill-treated in police custody, and in some instances physical abuse has resulted in deaths.

The ERRC has also documented numerous violations of the fundamental rights of Roma by officials of Russia’s criminal-justice system. ERRC officials said such discrimination is incompatible with international human rights standards of fair trials.

According to Mr. Raihman, Roma defendants are kept in pretrial detention more often and for longer periods than non-Gypsies. They are sentenced to imprisonment for longer terms than non-Roma for the same offense.

ERRC research also shows that Roma victims of human rights violations have rarely been able to obtain redress from a court of justice. They are frequently subjected to threats and other psychological pressure to withdraw their complaints.

“A serious and complex problem for Roma in Russia is the widespread absence of personal documents,” said Mr. Raihman.

In practice, the Russian internal passport system is repressive, and its most frequent victims are people who physically differ from others — particularly migrants and members of ethnic minorities.

Roma pay bribes to conclude their numerous encounters with police because obtaining personal documents seems to be even more difficult for them than paying bribes.

ERRC research shows that large Roma communities throughout Russia live in severe poverty and do not have access to basic social and economic rights such as education, adequate housing, health care and employment.

In 2003, Roma Ural carried out research into the educational situation of Roma children in Ekaterinburg. The findings confirmed that 55 percent of children between 11 and 17 do not attend school.

Mr. Todokhov explained that many Roma parents, illiterate themselves, find it impossible to cope with difficult and arbitrary requirements imposed by local officials. Moreover, humiliating treatment of Roma children by teachers and fellow students also plays a role in the exclusion of Roma from education.

In Cheboksary — capital of the Chuvash republic in the center of European Russia — there is a separate room on the ground floor reserved for Roma children in the main school attended by Roma and non-Roma. This classroom is used by Gypsy children aged 7 to 14.

The Roma children also say that at the ceremonies opening each school year, they sit separately from non-Roma children.

Urging the integration of the Roma into modern society, protection of Roma rights, and overcoming negative stereotypes of Gypsies, Mrs. Petrova appealed to “the U.S. government to use its economic and political weight to improve their condition.”

“We have to strengthen democracy and human rights in Russia,” she said.

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