The death of a Roma man in the Czech Republic last weekend at the hands of police officers who knelt on his neck has brought international attention to the treatment of the minority group, especially given comparisons to the murder of George Floyd, whose death sparked months of protests in the U.S.
On Monday, the Czech police claimed that a court autopsy ruled the death of Stanislav Tomas, 46, the result of a drug overdose, not the excessive force used by three police officers. In video footage taken by onlookers, officers are seen kneeling his chest and neck for around five minutes.
But for the Roma community, which makes up around 2% of the Czech population, Tomas's death is just the latest incidence of systemic discrimination that they face at the hands of the authorities.
Roma communities face disproportionately higher rates of poverty and unemployment in the Czech Republic and many are forced to live in segregated areas on the outskirts of cities.
The Czech police did little to calm matters on Monday when it tweeted a post that included the words 'No Czech Floyd' in response to a hashtag that had been circulating on social media.
It branded Tomas a "multiple recidivist" and claimed that he had been on psychoactive drugs and had vandalised several cars when he was arrested. As for the arrest, the statement claimed that it had been "carried out in accordance with the law and had no connection with the death of the deceased.”
Police also released footage of the moments leading up to their intervention, which appears to show two bare-chested men attacking each other and parked vehicles. Spokespeople have said that officers were scratched and bitten by Tomas during the arrest.
But other social media posts by onlookers assert that the man who died was trying to prevent the other person from vandalising cars, and was mistakenly identified by the police as the aggressor.
The incident took place in Teplice, in the northwest of the country and near the city of Most, where tensions between the Roma and non-Roma communities have been high for years.
At local elections in 2018, a small political party in the area ran with the campaign slogan: “Poison alone is not strong enough for these pests” in reference to the Roma.
A study published by the Pew Research Centre in 2019 found that 66% of Czech respondents admitted having unfavourable views of Roma, more than Hungarians and Poles but fewer than had such views about neighbouring Slovaks (76%) or Italians (83%).
An EU report from 2019 found that 6% of Romani children attend segregated schools, where all other classmates are Roma, and 51% of Roma aged 16-24 are neither in employment nor education.
A large percentage of Roma are forced to live in isolated communities on the outskirts of cities, where there are few amenities, investment from local authorities, and sources of employment.
Roma candidates won just 13 out of 62,000 seats in local governments at the 2018 elections, and just one of 675 seats at regional government elections last year, according to the latest U.S. report on human rights in the Czech Republic.
On Wednesday, the Council of Europe called for an independent investigation to be launched over the police’s actions surrounding the death.
But the General Inspectorate of Security Forces (GIBS), an independent body that investigates alleged crimes by police officers, said that after reviewing documents, including video footage and autopsies, it “does not currently see a criminal offense in the actions of the intervening police officers."
As for the public, interpretations of the incident appear to be split between two competing narratives, which tend to conform to existing presumptions about Romani communities.
The government, meanwhile, has yet to formally comment on the matter, but on Tuesday Interior Minister Jan Hamacek gave his backing of the police’s story.
“The intervening police have my full support. If someone under the influence of addictive substances violates the law, they must reckon with the police intervening. Mainly thanks to the work of police officers, we are in the top ten safest countries in the world," he tweeted.
Speaking on Thursday, Hamacek expressed his condolences for “every lost human life” but doubled down on blaming drug abuse for the death. “If he hadn't taken them, he would still be among us,” he said.
A government-backed study published last year estimated that substance abuse was 2–6 times higher among the Roma compared to the general population in the Czech Republic. Roma activists say this is because of poverty and social deprivation caused by systemic discrimination.
For others, it conforms to their views of Roma as work-shy and habitually criminal.
Officials from the Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs, a permanent advisory body to the Czech government, did not respond to requests for comment.
But a statement by the body noted that the similarities between this case and the one of George Floyd in the United States last year “raises a subject of basic interest to all of society about whether police are using force proportionately during their interventions.”
At vigils held in Teplice this week, demonstrators held banners reading “Romani Lives Matter” and the Roma rights group Romano Lav has condemned the police narrative.
Even if Tomas had been under the influence of drugs, it “does not legitimize the police brutality and at least potentially lethal use of force that the video so clearly [shows],” a statement read.
“Far from separate concerns, we see the movement against anti-Gypsyism and anti-Roma racism as fundamentally part of the movement for Black Lives. Our struggles may have their specificities, but are united by one common enemy: the scourge of structural racism," it added.
Relations between the police and Roma communities have long been controversial. In 2014, the Czech police began a new programme of community officers in Roma communities.
Three years later, the GIBS charged two police officers for abusing a detained Roma man to extract a forced confession. One of the officers was fined but his sentence was overturned by a higher court.
While the Tomas case has been covered by international news organisations from across the world, critics note that past deaths of Roma at the hands of police have attracted little attention.
In October 2016, Miroslav Demeter died after being arrested by the police following a disturbance at a pizzeria in Zatec, about 50km from Teplice. An internal investigation concluded his death was due to a drug overdose, but it was later revealed that he had just been released from a psychiatric ward.
“Above all, it is a sad story,” said Miroslav Zima, director of the DROM Roma Center, an NGO in Brno.
“From the footage, the cause of death cannot be objectively assessed. Each case is unique."
The Czech Republic is far from the only European country where Roma minorities face official discrimination.
Recent years have seen anti-Roma mobs attack neighbourhoods in Italy, while several cities in Slovakia have built walls to divide Roma and non-Roma populations.
In 2018, the Bulgarian National Movement, part of the coalition government, put forward a plan to create “reservations” for Romani communities to be used as “tourist attractions”.
In 2019, the party’s leader, Krasimir Karakachanov, who also served as a deputy prime minister, called for “a complete programme for a solution to the Gypsy problem”
However, the current political leaders of the Czech Republic have faced criticism in the past for their comments on Roma communities.
'They slapped him around'
President Milos Zeman, who has often taken anti-liberal stances, is known for his anti-Roma comments. He has called Roma “inadaptables” and during a public speech in 2018 praised the way the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia used to beat the Roma “if they refused to work.”
“If somebody on their team didn't work,” he said, “they slapped him around. It's a very humane method that worked most of the time.”
The current prime minister, Andrej Babis, was pressured to resign when finance minister in 2016 after he asserted that the Lety concentration camp used by occupying Nazi forces during the Second World War was only a labor camp for workshy Roma.
The site of the Lety concentration camp was specifically designated for victims of the Roma Holocaust, or “Porajmos” or “Pharrajimos” in Roma languages. Historians estimate that between 25% to over 50% of Europe’s entire Roma population were killed between 1939 and 1945.
Only in 2017 did the Czech government buy the site of the Lety concentration camp that had been used as a pig farm for decades. Yet plans to turn it into a heritage site remain delayed.
After years of debate, only this March did Czech lawmakers finally pass legislation to compensate potentially thousands of Roma women who were involuntarily sterilized in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, though the practice continued into the 1990s after the fall of communism.
The Czech state only formally apologized for this in 2009.
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