Some three decades after the fall of communist systems, police brutality – linked to political, racial and other issues – remains a problem across the region.
By Srecko Latal, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Sasa Dragojlo, Madalin Necsutu, Anja Vladisavljevic, Hamdi Firat Buyuk, Claudia Ciobanu, Edit Inotai, Miroslava German Sirotnikova, Xhorxhina Bami, Marcel Gascón Barberá, Nedim Dervisbegovic and Svetoslav Todorov
People across Southeast Europe have been following events in the US after unarmed African American George Perry Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis less than three weeks ago.
Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, which spread across America and the world like wildfire, have reverberated also in this region, which is still plagued by police brutality and the over-extensive use of police powers, which sometimes go unpunished, more than three decades after the fall of communism.
Although all countries in the region have since embraced key human rights and the rule of law, and in some cases have joined the European Union, police violence remains a common feature, although it is no longer seen as acceptable.
“A phenomenon like this was absolutely normal in the 1990s, and now is completely unacceptable,” Romania’s former anti-communist dissident and human rights activist Gabriel Andreescu told BIRN.
Andreescu, who has written several articles and books on the issue, says police abuse still happens, but “in a completely different proportion” to what was seen in Eastern Europe during communist times.
Reports and experts say police brutality in Southeast Europe in the last decade often targets Roma communities. Yet some countries also saw a worrying number of incidents of police violence used against opposition figures and journalists.
In recent years, the level of this violence has fallen, experts say, linking this to part of the region joining the EU and to the other part aspiring to follow suit.
But many say that the culture of impunity among those who violate the laws they are supposed to uphold is almost as bad as police brutality itself.
“Impunity is the biggest problem. A police officer cannot investigate his colleague; it is absurd to expect that, but the prosecution often lets the police to do the investigation,” Vladica Ilic, a lawyer from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, told BIRN.
When those who believe they have been victims of police brutality see no legal action undertaken by their local authorities, they often submit their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR.
A quick search of the ECHR database reveals hundred cases of alleged police brutality from Southeast Europe – some closed, many pending.
But this is still only a small part of the story, as many other cases go completely ignored.
Most countries in the region have a dozen or so such cases before the ECHR, often concerning injuries. Only a few concern fatalities. Turkey stands out as the regional leader in police violence.
Undisputed ‘champion’ of police brutality in region
Since it recognised the European Court of Human Rights’ judicial authority in 1987, Turkish nationals have been responsible for a high numbers of applications to the ECHR.
In 2019 alone, the ECHR registered a total of 9,250 cases against Turkey, which was the second highest number after Russia, and equalled 15.5 per cent of the ECHR’s total annual caseload.
Of that number, 32 cases were related to police violence in 2019 – almost more than all other countries in the region combined.
A total of 403 people died at the hands of the Turkish police between 2009 and 2017, according to the Baran Tursun Foundation, a non-profit organisation that focuses on police brutality.
Several new cases of police violence were also reported during the recent curfews imposed in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A police officer killed a 19-year-old man in Adana on April 18, for example, after he was found on the street during the curfew and failed to stop after a police warning.
On May 25, in Tekirdag, Thrace, a family sitting in their garden during the curfew were beaten by a group of police officers.
“Police brutality and police impunity are very common in Turkey,” Emre Turkut, an expert on international human rights law from the University of Ghent told BIRN, explaining the high number of cases from Turkey before the ECHR.
Turkut stressed a clear link between the rise of autocratic rule in Turkey and growing police violence – and between police brutality and anti-government protests.
In another reminder of the scale of the problem, police killed seven protesters during the Gezi Park Protests in 2013, which were the first massive street protests again President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The number of cases against Turkey before the ECHR would be even higher, experts say, if the court’s capacity was not limited; it tends to reject applications from Turkey on the grounds that not all local legal resources have been exhausted.
Turkish police are also slow in investigating, let alone processing, even the best-documented cases of police brutality. In some cases, they fail to sanction police even when their brutality has been proven.
“Human rights violations, police brutality and police impunity, as well as cases before the ECHR, will continue to increase as a result of the country’s worsening democracy and the rule of law,” Turkut concluded.
Small country with a big problem
While the rest of South-eastern Europe is no match to Turkey in terms of police brutality, the region has also seen numerous cases of police violence.
The ECHR database shows a surprisingly large number of cases from North Macedonia in the last decade – 16, seemingly inappropriate for a country of just over 2 million inhabitants.
A review of these cases shows that foreign nationals as well as citizens from the country’s two main ethnic groups – Macedonians and Albanians – have alleged police misconduct over the years.
The most prominent concerned German national Khaled El-Masri who in 2012 won a case in the ECHR against North Macedonia.
El-Masri claimed that he was captured in North Macedonia as part of the CIA’s mistaken rendition programme in 2003.
He held North Macedonia responsible for the ordeal he suffered from the local police during his 23 days of detention in a Skopje hotel before he was handed over to the CIA, who took him to a secret detention facility in Afghanistan, where he remained until May 2004.
The ECHR ruled that North Macedonia was responsible for his torture and ill treatment, and ordered it to pay him 60,000 euro in damages.
The ECHR also ruled against North Macedonia in 2015 for “degrading treatment, unjustified use of potentially lethal force at the hands of the police during arrests and failure of the authorities to conduct an effective investigation”.
This case was related to an incident from 2009, when police in Skopje opened fire from automatic weapons on 26-year-old Aleksandar Kitanovski, after he previously evaded police control. He was also later beaten by the police.
This was the first in a series of cases ruled against the Alfa crime police unit, which was later dismantled, after gaining notoriety for misconduct and brutality.
One case that did not end in Strasbourg, but caused widespread protests at home against police brutality, was the killing of Martin Neskovski. He was beaten to death by a policeman on June 6, 2011.
According to subsequently released wiretaps, the authorities at that time tried to cover the case up.
This case sparked politically charged protests against the then government, which then triggered violent demonstrations in Skopje in May 2015.
Roma are frequent victims in some countries
In a number of countries, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, police brutality tends to target ethnic Roma, reports and human rights activist say.
The situation seems to have improved since these countries all joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 respectively.
But before then, there were several cases of police brutality, including the killing of a 51-year Roma in Slovakia in 2001 and several other cases of beatings in 2009 and 2010.
While the ECHR database shows only two such cases in Slovakia, several others never reached that court.
The Slovak police have a history of conducting violent raids on Roma settlements, dating back to 2004, followed by more in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
The most notorious took place in 2013 in the eastern town of Moldava ad Bodvou, where a group of 63 police raided a Roma settlement under a vague warrant of searching for “wanted persons and objects” and attacked locals, sending nine to hospital.
The authorities insisted the police did not use excessive violence and even charged several people with making false testimonies.
In March this year, the first of the Roma men so charged was acquitted by a court in Kosice. The case is currently being investigated by the ECHR.
In Romania, the ECHR in 2018 obliged the country to pay reparations to a high-school student who was removed from class by police and beaten in detention, accused of having committed a robbery that occurred in front of his home.
For Hungary, the ECHR database shows only six cases of police brutality, though some experts and activists claim this just the tip of the iceberg.
Two of these cases were taken to the Strasbourg court by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, TASZ, an NGO which sued the government for police violence against two Roma persons in 2014 and 2019.
Stefania Kapronczay, the executive director of TASZ, told BIRN it was hard to get such cases into court.
“These cases are extremely difficult to prove,” she said. “The victims rarely think they could successfully denounce the perpetrators. Even if they do, police officers are usually alone with the victim, and if they stick together, it is hard to prove what really happened. So these cases rarely reach the court,” she added.
“It is important to add, that the Roma are especially vulnerable to police abuse,” she continued.
Recent violence often includes migrants
Hungary also became infamous for occasional – but usually hard to prove – police violence against migrants, especially during the European migrant crisis. On September 8, 2015, a local camerawoman, Petra Laszlo, was recorded kicking migrants who were fleeing police.
Lately, Croatian police have been taking the lead in harassing the migrants who travel every year from Asia or the Middle East through the so-called “Balkan corridor” to reach the EU.
For the last two years, as migrants increasingly started using the so-called “southern route” to the EU through Bosnia and Croatia, numerous regional and international media documented acts of Croatian police violence towards migrants, which were all rejected by the government.
Now, for the first time, the Croatian government itself is being taken to the ECHR – the twelfth Croatian police brutality case before the court, of which five are still pending, in the last decade.
This happened after the Court on May 25 published a communication on the individual complaints brought by three Syrian refugees.
The applicants – one of whom was an unaccompanied minor at the time – claimed they were denied an individual assessment of their case after being summarily expelled from Croatia to Bosnia in October 2018. One submits that, after being apprehended, the Croatian police beat him.
“The Croatian police subject refugees and other migrants to systematic violence that includes violent pushbacks, using batons, guns, punches, violating their human dignity,” Ana Cuca, from a human rights NGO, the Center for Peace Studies, told BIRN.
“Lack of effective investigation and imposition of adequate and proportionate disciplinary measures towards police officers who abuse their power shows the Croatian political establishment turns a blind eye to such behaviour,” she added.
“Brutality is not strictly directed towards refugees and other migrants, but also to members of other national minorities such as Roma,” Cuca continued, citing several such cases.
No police brutality cases concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina are currently before the ECHR, and over the past few years Bosnia was believed to be treating the growing number of migrants better than Croatia.
Nevertheless, the office of Bosnia’s state ombudsman for human rights in its recent annual report said it had registered some 300 complaints of alleged police misconduct.
One of the latest incidents involved alleged police brutality against migrants last month, which the Bosnian authorities said they would investigate.
Media published a video showing local police beating a resident at the Miral camp for migrants near the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa.
The police at first denied the accusations, saying they had intervened to break up a violent protest by migrants over movement restrictions due to coronavirus pandemic.
Opposition, media and activists are targets
In several countries, such as Moldova, Montenegro, Poland or Serbia, police brutality seems either more random, or is more politically motivated.
Police brutality in Poland is most notoriously associated with the death of 25-year-old Igor Stachowiak in 2016, who was electrocuted and beaten to death in police custody in the city of Wroclaw.
Recordings revealed in 2017 show Stachowiak – who was arrested because of mistaken identity – being electrocuted on the bathroom floor of the police station, while handcuffed and stripped of his clothes.
So far, the ECHR adjudicated only one police brutality case against Montenegro, over an incident in which Anton Sinistaj and Pjetar Dedvukaj – who were arrested in 2006 with other 15 people for planning terrorist acts on the day of parliamentary elections – accused the police of extorting statements, torture and ill-treatment.
Two other cases are pending before the ECHR against Montenegro, in both cases alleging police brutality during 2015 anti-government protests.
In Moldova, one of the most prominent cases of police abuse, which has occupied public attention for some years, relates to the death of Andrei Braguta.
The 32-year-old mentally ill man was arrested on August 15, 2017. Braguta was drunk when detained and attacked two police officers. As a punishment, he was thrown into a cell with violent inmates. Police did not allow his family to bring him the medicine he needed to calm him down, and turned a blind eye when his cellmates beat him to death, although he had screamed for help.
Authorities then tried to forge death certificates, declaring that Braguta had died of “respiratory failure.” Two years later, his four cellmates and two police officers were convicted of five years’ jail in a first-instance ruling.
A US State Department report on human rights in Moldova in 2019 warned that the country was failing to investigate most allegations of mistreatment and torture.
But the situation is worse in Moldova’s breakaway and Russian-controlled region of Transnistria, where Chisinau has no control over the police.
The director of the NGO Promo-LEX, Ion Manole, told BIRN that victims of police brutality there have no means of redress whatever. “There is a totalitarian regime, completely closed ,and people do not have the opportunity to sue the police for abuse,” he noted.
In Serbia, the most prominent case in the last decade was one in which the ECHR in 2011 ruled in favour of Zoran Stanimirovic. He claimed the police, who had accused him of double murder, had tortured him with baseball bats, electric shocks and suffocation with a plastic bag.
Vladica Ilic, from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, told BIRN that Serbia has a bad reputation in the EHCR, mostly because local authorities traditionally ignore accusations of police violence.
The case that most recently struck the Serbian public was the death of 28-year-old Milovan Ivic in May 2018.
Despite suffering severe bodily injuries, and despite evidence that he was brutally beaten, partly at the police station, the prosecution denied accusations of police torture and insisted he had died of alcohol and drugs.
Ilic, a lawyer on this case, told BIRN that the case showed how the Serbian police deal with accusations of brutality in general.
“Although the police and the doctor knew that he was heavily beaten, no one informed the prosecutor. And the camera footage disappeared,” he said.
He added that, during the COVID-related state of emergency, he had filed five criminal complaints of police violence towards citizens, and hoped they will conclude before the EHCR.