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March|April 2006
Finders Keepers? Christopher Heaney
Shanghaied Sasha Issenberg
Bigger Is Better Paul Wachter
Jack of All Plants Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
The Vigilante in the Kitchen Josh Rosenblum
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist William H. Simon
Roma v. Romania Doug Merlino
Off the Res Ellen Thompson

Roma v. Romania

A judgment for the Gypsies gives them little satisfaction.

Doug Merlino

ELEONORA ROSTAS SAT ON A BENCH in her front yard in the Romanian village of Hadareni, clutching a blue folder stuffed with legal documents. The papers included a settlement from the European Court of Human Rights that Rostas had mixed feelings about having signed. She pointed toward an area just past her chain-link fence and recalled the night of September 20, 1993.

"Don't kill me, I have kids," Rostas said she heard a man begging in the house next door. Dozens of villagers—including the local police commander and one of his officers—were gathering outside. Some began throwing stones, pieces of wood, and clumps of dirt at the house. "Let them burn like rats!" members of the mob shouted, according to Rostas's documents. Hours earlier, three men who, like Rostas, were Gypsies (or Roma, as many prefer to be called) and two Romanian men had gotten into a scuffle in town. By the end of it, one of the Roma had stabbed and killed a Romanian.

The three Roma had run and taken shelter in the house next to Rostas's. Two of them tried to flee but were caught and beaten to death by the mob; another was prevented from leaving and was burned alive. The crowd moved on to the homes of other Roma in the village, burning 13 houses and trashing several more. As her house was torched, Rostas, then 37, took her teenage daughter and fled into the surrounding cornfields.

When Rostas and her neighbors returned a few weeks later, they took refuge in henhouses, pigsties, and windowless cellars as the winter set in. "We had no water to wash ourselves," Rostas said. "We didn't have clothes, food. No one would help."

AFTER THE INCIDENT, Rostas and many other of the village's 150 Roma spoke with the local prosecutor, accusing some 18 members of the mob of looting, arson, and murder. Three police officers, including the local chief, were investigated by military prosecutors, but charges were dropped in 1995, even though earlier testimony indicated that two had been present during the attacks and the other implicated in trying to cover up the episode.

It took until 1998—the prosecutor filed charges in 1997, four years after the crimes—for the local Romanian court to deliver a criminal judgment in the case, convicting five men of murder and seven others of destroying property and disturbing public order. (None of the convicts served more than three and a half years in prison. In 1999, the Romanian Supreme Court acquitted two of the accused murderers and reduced the charges against the other three due to mitigating circumstances, including the stabbing that sparked the incident. The next year, the president of Romania pardoned two of the remaining three convicts.) The local judge had earlier made excuses for the initial lenient sentences, saying that the convicted men should not be punished severely because they were not the only ones involved in the attack. She also castigated the Roma for "their rejection of the moral values accepted by the rest of the population," adding that the Roma community had "marginalized itself, shown aggressive behavior, and deliberately denied and violated the legal norms acknowledged by society."

THE ROMA HAVE RARELY FOUND A WARM WELCOME in Europe, where they have lived at the margins of society since their migration from northern India more than 10 centuries ago. There are seven to nine million Roma on the continent today, and these traditionally nomadic people maintain a separate culture, due in part to their belief that mixing with gadje, or outsiders, is polluting: The Roma, for example, maintain strict codes of sexual chastity and personal hygiene. In Romania, where the Roma were enslaved as field hands and artisans for 500 years until 1856, they tend to be particularly insular. They follow their own legal system administered by the kris, a community tribunal that settles disputes between Roma over matters like theft, violence, and divorce, with penalties ranging from fines to excommunication from the group. With their traditional trades such as blacksmithing and metalworking no longer much required, many Roma now survive by working as day laborers or selling cheap goods.

Their separateness has made them especially vulnerable to changes that have swept through Romania in the past two decades. In 1989, a group of military officers, emboldened by a civil uprising in the streets of Bucharest, tried and executed the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who had ruled the country for 24 years. The Roma were seen to have benefited under Communism: They were given plots of land to farm under collectivization and their connections to Roma in neighboring countries gave them special access to a thriving black market. From their view, however, they felt forced to assimilate and abandon their traditional jobs in favor of factory work. As economic woes beset Romania in the 1980s and the tough times later fueled a belligerent nationalism, the Roma became scapegoats. The Hadareni attack was one of an estimated 30 similar acts of violence against the Roma in the 1990s.

In 2000, the four-year-old European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest, Hungary, filed a complaint on behalf of Rostas and 24 other victims of the attack with the European Court of Human Rights. Staffed largely by non-Roma, the organization works to improve the plight of the Roma, primarily through litigation and advocacy.

The center often brings cases to the human rights court, which was established after World War II to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights. Individuals or governments that have exhausted domestic legal remedies can file complaints against a government, accusing it of failing to uphold the convention. The court has the power to levy fines and award compensation, and can reject any settlement reached by parties involved in a case. In the Hadereni case, the center charged Romania with violating the human rights of Rostas and the other Roma in its treatment of them in the aftermath of the attack.

Last summer, the court called Romania to account for those abuses. The government was found to have violated four articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to be free of inhuman treatment, the right to be free of discrimination, and the right to a fair hearing. In its judgment, the court described the comments by the local Romanian court as "purely discriminatory."

The decision of the human rights court came a week after the court affirmed a settlement between Romania and 18 of the 25 plaintiffs in the case, including Rostas, who followed the center's advice and chose not to remain in the group that pressed for and received the final judgment. In the settlement, the Romanian government apologized for its ill treatment of the Hadareni Roma and agreed to adopt measures to reduce discrimination. The plaintiffs were awarded a total of 500,000 Euros, or $600,000, of which Rostas received 24,000 Euros ($28,800). According to Constantin Cojocariu, who has managed the case at the Roma rights center, the ruling "was very good from our point of view." He said that the expansive finding of discrimination is helping his organization push for settlements in three similar cases against Romania.

While they feel vindicated by Romania's apology, the clients of the center object to other aspects of the settlement. At issue in particular is a clause requiring Romania to increase "Roma participation" in the community through "mutual assistance and community development projects." Rostas and her neighbors don't want to participate, especially with locals who have harassed and threatened them. More fundamentally, however, the Roma are suspicious of integration, which many believe threatens their cultural identity much as the forced assimilation policies of the Communist era did.

Rostas and the other Roma worry that money earmarked for community development, expected to be as much as 300,000 euros, will benefit their persecutors, who are back in the community. "Romanians consider Gypsies like rats. They show more mercy to a dog," Rostas said. "Now they are laughing at us. They say we can kill you and burn your houses and nothing will happen to us."

When he was told of the comments by Roma in the village, Cojocariu was taken aback. He sees community development and programs to reduce ethnic tensions as the only way forward for the Roma. "It is not our responsibility to press for justice at any price," he said.

Rostas, however, said she fears that the people who committed the attack 12 years ago may try to burn the Roma's homes again, as relations in the village remain bitter. She insisted the Roma would continue to press their civil case in the local courts, because they want the perpetrators to pay additional compensation for their crimes. "The case in the European Court of Human Rights was between Europe and the government of Romania," she said. Between her people and the attackers in the village, it settled nothing.

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