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BRATISLAVA, Apr 17 2009 (IPS) - Slovakia’s interior minister is facing calls to resign amid claims of institutionalised racism in the country’s police force after a video emerged of policemen forcing Roma children to strip naked, kiss and beat each other while being held at a police station.
Roma leaders and anti-racism groups say Robert Kalinak should step down, along with the head of the police force, Jan Packa, following the revelations of the videos, which some local media have compared to films from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“Minister Kalinak and police chief Packa should both resign immediately. This is a systematic problem within the police force and we know from our own detailed studies that there have been other similar cases where police have tortured Roma children, including releasing dogs on them,” Stefan Sarkozy of the Institute for Roma Public Politics told IPS.
“This is not an isolated incident in one police station. This has gone on in lots of police stations all over the country,” he added.
The video, which Slovak police have confirmed was taken at a police station in the city of Kosice in the east of the country, shows six Roma boys aged between 10 and 16, being made to hit and kiss each other and being forced to strip naked. When they tried to cover themselves policemen can be heard on the video shouting at them to put their hands up. The video clearly shows uniformed officers.
The policemen are heard laughing as they give out orders to the boys, who had been taken to the police station on suspicion of theft. They are seen giving instructions to the boys to hit each other harder.
The film was sent anonymously to the Sme daily newspaper.
An internal investigation was immediately launched and six policemen have so far been dismissed. They are facing criminal charges of abuse of their position as police officers. Other officers are also being questioned.
But both Kalinak and Packa have rejected calls for their resignations.
Kalinak told Slovak media the case was one of “individual failures” and not systematic racism in the police force.
He has been supported by newly elected President Ivan Gasparovic and Prime Minister Robert Fico, both of whom have said they see no reason for him, or for Packa, to step down.
There are an estimated 400,000 Roma living in Slovakia – almost ten per cent of the Slovak population. They form one of the largest Roma minorities in Europe. Many Roma claim they are the victims of widespread and institutionalised racism, which leaves them facing discrimination in labour markets and prevents them from receiving proper education.
Unemployment in some Roma communities runs at close to 100 percent, and crime and alcoholism rates among Roma are among the highest in the country.
Many Roma and anti-racism groups say that there is a widespread tolerance in society of racism against Roma, fuelled by politicians’ reluctance to condemn such attacks on Roma.
The government’s plenipotentiary for Roma issues, Anina Botosova, is to meet with Packa next week to discuss the video.
She was unavailable for comment, but in a statement given to IPS she said: “The children were accused of theft and the authorities should have followed the letter of the law, not torture them. This is a step backwards in the observance of human rights in Slovakia.”
But Roma organisations say high-ranking politicians and public figures must now clearly condemn such incidents to combat what they say is a tolerance of anti-Roma racism that pervades society.
Klara Orgovanova of the independent Roma Institute told IPS: “This kind of behaviour toward Roma is common. From the reaction of police that have discussed other cases involving Roma it is clear that it is considered acceptable to treat Roma in this way.
“There is a general atmosphere in society that this can be tolerated, that in some way these children got what they deserved. This will only change if politicians and important public figures stand up and condemn this and say it is wrong and will not be tolerated.”
She added: “If the interior minister were to resign after this, and come out and say that he was stepping down in protest against the behaviour of the police force toward Roma, then it would be a shining example, and set a precedent of what is considered unacceptable.”
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