Police Brutality Against the Roma in North Macedonia and Beyond
An older Roma woman is in a worrying condition in hospital after she and her son were beaten by a police officer in Bitola, the second-largest city in North Macedonia. It's the latest in a string of brutal incidents against people from the Roma ethnic minority. And it comes just weeks after police in the same city beat three Roma men following a car accident - an incident that was caught on camera and led to an outcry over racism.
The latest attack occurred after a police officer tried to fine a Roma man for not wearing a mask outside, despite the fact the man was not only eating but that the law mandating masks outside has not even been passed yet. When the man did not have his ID with him, his mother offered to show hers to the officer, who then called for back-up and took the two into a police van where he brutally beat them. The elderly woman who suffers from asthma could not breathe and had to be taken to the emergency room. Her husband tried to report the incident three times to the police but so far no one would help him.
Two days ago AVAJA, a civil society initiative that advocates for Roma rights in North Macedonia, reported in a widely shared Facebook post that the officer who put the individuals in a police van taunted the mother and son by using racial slurs and referring to the previous incident, saying: “Try filming now, you can’t do anything to me.” AVAJA announced that unless the authorities respond quickly, they will start organizing a protest in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Not much else is currently known about this attack but the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the Macedonian Society of Young Lawyers are providing the victims legal help.
In the video clip of the previous incident that circulated on social media last month, a police officer can be seen kicking and punching a Roma man, while the person holding the camera watches and laughs. A second victim can be seen being beaten near a police car at the same time. Despite the video evidence, few Macedonian media outlets covered the full extent of the violence and dehumanizing behavior of the police officers during the incident, which occurred on 23rd September in Bitola. It did however receive a lot of attention on social media and led to protests both condemning and defending the police behavior.
The three Roma victims got the chance to tell their stories in an interview with AVAJA. They explained that before the police arrived, they were in pain and a state of shock following the car accident; one of the men tells how he had to check if his friends were alive and well. Thankfully, none were seriously injured. But when the traffic police found their car, instead of helping the men and offering medical assistance, the officers immediately started physically assaulting the passengers.
“They should have been helping us, not beating us,” said one of the victims in the AVAJA interview. He went on to explain that one of the police officers hit him and took his phone when he tried to document the violence. When he later tried to report the incident to the interior ministry, he was turned away.
The man recounted how the trio were held in a Bitola police station, where officers continued to beat them, until 5 a.m. the next morning. The resulting injuries included a damaged eye socket, a broken arm, and back and neck injuries. They were also verbally abused and called anti-Roma racial slurs by the officers.
Elvis Shakiri, a Roma rights advocate from AVAJA, said the incident was an example of a widespread problem of police brutality that is rarely brought to light.
“We are aware that similar incidents have occured behind closed doors, inside police stations; however, this time the traffic police decided to do that out in the open. Had this video not been filmed, this case would probably have remained hidden just like many others,”
Indeed, the Macedonian police force has a history of systemic use of excessive force against the Roma population. Many anti-Roma police brutality cases were noted in a 2016 report by the Helsinki Committee of Human Rights, including one in which Roma children were beaten by members of the ALFA special police unit (which was folded into the public order and peace unit last year), and another in which a child was tied up with a rope.
In a more recent incident, in June of this year, a group of homeless Roma citizens living under Skopje’s main train station were subjected to an attack by the ALFA police unit for supposedly breaking the Corona police curfew and playing loud music (or according to the police “disturbing the peace”). Twenty officers indiscriminately beat men, women, children and old people living in the encampment. Five people were also arrested. In an interview with Civil Media, one of the women victims shows a large bruise on her arm and says that her child has been waking up in the middle of the night in fear since that day. Many of the children living there were traumatized and the police fined some of the group’s members for not abiding by the Covid lockdown, that required people to stay indoors - an impossible task if you are homeless - literally penalizing the Roma residents for their poverty.
The June incident was not met with any major public outcry. But last month’s shocking attack has led to online outrage as well as a protest in Bitola, following the AVAJA interview. After this public response, the Ministry of Internal Affairs acted quickly and suspended two of the police officers involved, with one facing a criminal charge. It is likely that there are more than just two police officers actually responsible for the brutality (three can be seen on the video alone), but it was still a rare moment of partial accountability worth celebrating. However, this small victory came with an absurd twist: the Bitola police union organized a protest in support of their sanctioned colleagues and demanded their reinstatement. Waving Macedonian flags and riding in police vehicles, the Bitola police union actually protested in support of police brutality.
“They beat us because we’re poor, because we can’t complain,” said one of the victims during the AVAJA interview, perfectly summarizing why the Macedonian police keeps abusing Roma citizens. Because they can. Because the Roma continue to be the most marginalized group at almost all levels of Macedonian society and because it is unlikely that their rights and dignity will be valued above brutal police officers.
However, this is not simply a Macedonian problem. Police brutality, over policing of and racial discrimination against Roma people is a European problem.
Sadly, there are too many examples of police abuse against people of Roma descent across the continent. Just a few months ago, a Roma couple from Serbia finally won a court case against the Serbian Ministry of Interior over the torture and racial abuse they experienced in a Belgrade police station in 2017. In June this year, a 14-year-old Roma boy received severe injuries at the hands of police officers in Paris. In April, there was also a report of police officers beating children from a Roma settlement in Krompachy, Slovakia.
The list goes on. Many believe that these issues have gotten even worse since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, according to an investigation by Amnesty International, 50,000 Roma citizens in Bulgaria were cut off from the rest of the country and suffered severe food shortages as a result of a discriminatory quarantine. Full equality for Roma people couldn’t be further away from becoming reality. A 2016 report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights found as many as 80% of Roma people were at risk of poverty and that only 53% of Roma children attended early childhood education.
Anti-Roma police brutality is simply a symptom of a larger racist anti-Roma ideology that is pervasive around Europe. The latest incident from Bitola is an exact reflection of these systemic problems that are far from being solved. Not only should better legislation be passed, such a comprehensive law for the prevention of and protection from discrimination in North Macedonia, as many civil society groups are demanding, but there must also be a more open public dialogue on the topic. There must be a greater acknowledgement of the existence of anti-Roma racism, in addition to governmental and EU regulatory bodies actually listening to and including Roma people in the political process.
A good start would be implementing the various policy recommendations by ERGO, the European Roma Grassroots Organization Network, listed in a statement titled “Roma part of #BlackLivesMatter”.