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Human Rights Developments

Slovakia showed marked progress in its commitment to human rights in 1999, but problems remained for the newly elected government, especially in its treatment of Roma and other ethnic minorities.

In its first year in power, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, in an attempt to prepare Slovakia for membership in Western European institutions, began to address the legacy of human rights abuses committed under the previous government. In December 1998, the government created the new position of Deputy Prime Minister for Human and Minority Rights and appointed Paul Csaky, a member of the main Hungarian minority party, as minister. In May 1999, Slovak voters ended a year-long constitutional crisis during which there had been no president by electing Rudolph Schuster, the former mayor of Ko<ice, as head of state. The new parliament amended the constitution in January to allow for direct election of the president after the previous parliament refused to fill the position. The government presented a long awaited plan on Roma issues in September, though no major steps were taken to improve the conditions for Roma as of this writing.

In 1999, when thousands of Roma fled to Western Europe to seek asylum, some European Union (E.U.) countries reintroduced visa restrictions for Slovak citizens. This focused attention on the continued failure of the Slovak government to stop police and skinhead violence against Roma and to improve their general conditions of employment, education, and health care.

Only days after Dzurinda's government took power at the end of October 1998, police in the town of Hermanovce beat, handcuffed, shut in the trunk of a car, and detained without charges two Roma youth. The next day, around twenty police officers raided Roma homes in the village and beat Roma residents while they were still in bed. Similarly, on January 14, two undercover police officers in the eastern Slovak city of Ko<ice tormented Roma families in an apartment block, yelling racial epithets and pointing revolvers at the heads of some residents. The officers reportedly forced three Roma teenage sisters to disrobe and accused them of having incestuous relations.

Though government officials spoke publicly of the need to improve relations among Slovakia's minority groups, much of the public discourse on the issue served to inflame ethnic tension. Slovak National Party (SNS) leader Jan Slota, who also served as parliamentary vice chairman of the Slovak Security Service, said at a March rally that the way to deal with ethnic Hungarians is to "send in tanks and flatten Budapest." At the same rally he said Roma "steal, rob, and plunder."

Police and local officials failed to curb attacks and harassment by skinhead groups against Roma and other ethnic minorities. On July 24, skinheads attacked three Chinese residents of the capital Bratislava on a city bus, brutally beating a Chinese diplomat into a coma. In September, skinheads in Ko<ice, eastern Slovakia, allegedly stuffed Roma mailboxes with racially provocative appeals. Roma and Chinese residents complained that these types of attacks were commonplace, and that police did nothing to catch the perpetrators. The British embassy in Bratislava reported two attacks on its citizens of Asian descent in 1999.

Prosecution of skinhead crimes remained lax, and judges refused to convict perpetrators under racially motivated crimes statutes. In May, a judge in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, threw out the racially motivated crimes charge against a skinhead who was accused of verbally and physically assaulting a Roma university student. The judge based his decision on the precept that there are only three races, black, white, and yellow, and the assailant and victim were of the same race. The assailant was convicted on a separate charge of hooliganism.

After years of pressure from local minority groups and Western European bodies, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, the government passed a law that went into effect on September 1, guaranteeing the use of minority languages in official state business. The largest Hungarian political party opposed the law, saying it did not go far enough in protecting their language, and two opposition right-wing parties, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and SNS, gathered 380,000 signatures in support of a referendum to repeal the law. President Schuster refused to call the referendum, however, saying that to do so violated Slovakia's constitution, which bars referendums on human rights or minority policy.

Defending Human Rights

In March, the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center and local counsel filed a complaint at the European Court for Human Rights challenging two-year-old decrees that banned Roma from entering or settling in the villages of Nagov and Rokytovce. Previous attempts by the Ko<ice-based Office of Legal Defense for Ethnic Minorities to challenge the ordinances in domestic courts failed. In mid-April, Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Laszlo Nagy ordered the two eastern Slovak villages to repeal the discriminatory laws.

The Role of the International Community

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

OSCE Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel strongly urged Slovakia to pass a long awaited minority language law, which went into force in September. In a visit to Bratislava that coincided with the language law's enactment, van der Stoel met with Slovakia's deputy prime minister for human and minority rights, Pal Csaky, and expressed concern about Roma issues.

Council of Europe

In September, the Parliamentary Assembly rewarded Slovakia for its progress-in particular, the enactment of the minority language law-by voting to terminate its monitoring procedure for the country. It signaled, however, that other mechanisms would be employed to monitor further progress.

European Union

The European Union's (E.U.) regular report on Slovakia's accession application, which was published at the end of 1998, criticized police treatment and protection of Roma and emphasized the government's need to institute major reform in its policy on Roma if it is to gain E.U. membership. Still, the E.U. praised passage of the minority language law and the election of a president and announced in October that Slovakia would join the group of countries actively negotiating for E.U. membership.

United States

The United States State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 criticized Slovakia's failure to protect the Roma population from skinhead attacks and the widespread problem of domestic violence against women. The U.S. financed an estimated U.S. $3 million to retrofit Slovakia's military in preparation for possible NATO membership. Human rights advocates expressed concern that this upgrading would leave Slovakia with a cache of obsolete weapons that might then be sold to abusive regimes around the world (see Arms Division Chapter).

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