By Swain Uber
A Romani father and son became the latest victims of Bulgarian police brutality when they were set up and badly beaten near their home in the village of Bohot in Pleven province on Thursday 13 April.
Moments after the men parked their car to collect kindling in a nearby wood, they were surrounded by a group of local police officers, who ordered them to lie on the ground, then proceeded to beat them with batons and repeatedly kick them.
The son survived this brutal assault, sustaining serious injuries, which included a broken arm, broken ribs and bruising and contusions all over his body. The father, who had a heart condition and a pacemaker fitted, was not so fortunate and died at the scene of this ferocious assault.
The authorities justified the police action by claiming that the men were found in possession of stolen pesticides and had resisted arrest. They also claimed that the father took a heart attack as a result of his attempts to evade arrest and not because of being beaten. The family claims to have photos of the deceased’s beaten body, but these have not been released as yet. The results of the autopsy have yet to be made public.
Romani man from the village of Bohot in Pleven, Bulgaria after being brutally attacked by police. Photo credit: Ognyan Isaev
A recent survey conducted by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) found over one-third of all arrestees surveyed asserted that they had been subjected to violence either at the time of arrest or later inside the police station. Unsurprisingly, Bulgarian Roma are twice as likely as non-Roma to report being abused in the police stations, a number which jumps to 70% for Roma minors.
The most recent report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) found similar damning evidence: anyone in the custody of Bulgarian police “run a significant risk” of being mistreated “both at the time of apprehension and during subsequent questioning”. The CPT lamented that “very little progress, if any, has been made” to address this systemic problem.
Another recent report by BHC attempted to gather comprehensive information from the authorities about the number of victims who have suffered from abuse at the hands of the police as well as data about the outcomes of resulting investigations and proceedings to punish that abuse but they discovered that “no one really knows”, neither local nor national authorities, how widespread police violence is.
The specifics of this latest incident are still somewhat unclear, but what is categorically beyond dispute is this: A Romani man died and his son was severely beaten in an encounter with Bulgarian police. It is beyond comprehension what kind of mitigating or extenuating circumstances could make this situation acceptable.
News of the attack spread somewhat slowly via social media networks rather than mainstream news outlets. That such a serious incident involving loss of life in such shocking circumstances could have slipped past reporters is hard to comprehend. Especially in a country saturated by media companies and news providers, ready and poised to pounce on any incident where the antagonist can be identified as Roma, regardless of the truth content of the story. (This is such a common occurrence in Bulgarian media that a campaign to raise awareness about the epidemic of fake news stories used similar scandalous headlines as their examples.)
Yet, it was not until nearly a full week after the incident that the first media organisation picked up the story. The broadcast itself zig-zagged between merely-just-somewhat-racist and full-blown-bigotry, which reflected the conversation between the host and the guest, Anton Sirakov. Sirakov was the former vice-deputy of the far-right, ethno-nationalist ATAKA party, known for its hostility towards ethnic minorities, Muslims, foreigners, and in particular, Roma. The party leader, Volen Siderov, its affiliated television channel, SKAT, and Sirakov himself have all been accused of promulgating hate speech with some cases resulting in fines-multiple times since their emergence into political relevance.
Sirakov suggested that it was very suspect that the family sought the assistance of the “criminal loving” Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Watching footage of the deceased’s family home, he remarked that while the furniture showed poor taste, it was clear that this family was not poor, therefore, they must be thieves. The host challenged his absurd assertion, cutting to the heart of the issue: “This is ‘forest’ justice” – similar to street justice or jungle justice, perpetrated by the police themselves. Sirakov continued unfazed, “they weren’t in their own woods” and “when a man is very sick, he doesn’t go to out to steal”, clearly insinuating the father was responsible for his own death. Using militaristic language, he praised the police for “neutralising the two thieves, who were incompliant but eventually arrested”.
Sirakov also remarked on the non-reporting of the incident, but with more sinister intent. He claimed that wide coverage of this story would send a clear message, spread fear and cause “all crooks and thieves to lay down and not attack.”
When the host raised the point made on camera by the wife and mother of the two victims – Regardless of what happened… the police do not have the right to beat and kill individuals at will, even if they had committed a theft – Sirakov twisted her plea for mercy and understanding as an admission of guilt. He then cited an unrelated alleged incident – where public employees were threatened by a purportedly “similar group” of Roma who was also collecting wood as justification for a show of force in Botov. And Sirkaov finished off by complaining that no one asked whether either son or father have, or had, respectively, a job suggesting that they didn’t and that they were therefore thieves.
Sirakov and many like him, even in the midst of tragedy dehumanise, denigrate and disparage this family, and by extension all Roma: they are nothing more than thieves, and as such, the police did nothing wrong. This kind of rhetoric sends out a message that emboldens police to use excessive violence and leaves victims without domestic recourse or remedy as evidenced by the numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights against Bulgaria.
The far-right in Bulgaria has worked hard to create a political and social climate where police violence against Roma is actively condoned by some, and tacitly accepted by a wider public as an unpleasant but tolerable fact of life, that performs a necessary function. Roma as a people are considered criminals, and violence towards them-including towards individuals, who may or may not have committed a crime is in itself justifiable. The chilling message from the far-right parties, law enforcement agencies and media outlets in Bulgaria, is that simply being Roma is a crime and a crime that carries the risk of summary execution.