Human Rights Developments
Shortly after the December 1989 revolution which ousted Nicolae Ceausescu, many of the most repressive practices of the Ceausescu era were abolished. For example, severe restraints on freedom of speech, assembly, the press and travel were removed. However, Romania was a country sadly lacking in democratic institutions, with a population unfamiliar with democratic principles. Progress has been slow, and at the end of 1990, one year after the bloody Christmas revolution, Romania was still suffering significant human rights abuses.
In the first months of 1990, numerous independent newspapers, associations and political parties were founded, and Romanians began to take advantage of their new-found freedom of speech and association. However, the initial euphoria of the revolution ended quickly, as opposition to the governing Council for National Salvation, headed by Ion Iliescu and Petre Roman, became more vocal, and large numbers of Romanians took to the streets calling for the leadership's resignation. The year 1990 was punctuated by frequent, large anti-government demonstrations and numerous episodes of violence from a variety of quarters.
The May 20 elections were the first multiparty elections in Romania in over 40 years and, as such, were considered an event of great significance for the future of a democratic Romania. Unfortunately, a pre-election atmosphere of fear and uncertainty was not conducive to a free expression of the electorate's will. The elections were preceded by numerous violent attacks on candidates, demonstrators and political-party headquarters. Few of these attacks were investigated by the police. There were numerous reports of local Communist officials, who in many counties had not been replaced by the time of the May elections, using their power to intimidate voters and opposition candidates.
Ethnic tensions, which had long lain dormant, turned violent in numerous incidents in 1990. Ethnic tension in Romania began to escalate in early January, when Hungarians started to demand greater cultural freedom, including the reestablishment of Hungarian-language schools and the reopening of the Hungarian-language Bolyai University, which had been merged into the Romanian-language Babes University in 1959 as part of Ceausescu's decision to dismantle the Hungarian-language educational system. Other ethnic minorities also began to pressure the government for schools taught in their mother tongues. Progress was made in this area. For the 1990-1991 academic year, schools were established in Hungarian, German and a host of other minority languages. However, representatives of the Hungarian community reported increasing fear because of threats and acts of vandalism against their schools. The unresolved issue of Bolyai University continued to generate strong emotions and the potential for violence in Transylvania.
In March, violence broke out between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians in the Transylvanian city of Tirgu Mures. On March 19, the headquarters of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) was attacked by a large group of ethnic Romanians. The police and army did not respond to the UDMR's calls for protection until several hours after the attack began. Many ethnic Hungarians trapped inside were seriously injured.
On the following morning, some 15,000 ethnic Hungarians gathered in the town square to protest the previous day's events. A group of approximately 3,000 ethnic Romanians hostile to the Hungarians' demands began to gather on one side of the square in the early afternoon. Tensions escalated as word spread that buses of ethnic Romanian peasants from neighboring villages were heading toward town to support the Romanians in the square. By 2:30 p.m., the Chief of Police gave assurances to ethnic Romanian and Hungarian leaders in the square that the police had blocked off entrances to the city. However, unconfirmed reports indicated that the police allowed buses of ethnic Romanians through the roadblocks. Romanian peasants from villages outside Tirgu Mures arrived in the town center long after the roads should have been closed, and joined the Romanians already in the square.
Around 5:00 p.m., violence erupted as ethnic Romanians surged forward and attacked the Hungarians, breaking the single line of 50 police that the authorities had sent to divide the two groups. Although the police and army had been made aware of the potential for violence by both Hungarian and Romanian leaders, who had made numerous reports of the escalating tensions in the square, the authorities once again failed to respond in an adequate manner to protect the citizens of Tirgu Mures.
A commission of the provisional Parliament (CPUN) was established to investigate the violence in Tirgu Mures. The commission's findings were never made public. However, Helsinki Watch was able to obtain a copy of its report. Unfortunately, the report did not address the critical questions raised by the violence: What role did the army and police play in initiating the violence, and why did they fail to respond immediately to calls for help?
The Gypsy population was an increasingly frequent target of discrimination and violence in 1990. Gypsies were singled out for prosecution as a result of the Tirgu Mures clash, even though they were acknowledged by most to have played a small role in the violence. Gypsy communities were also the target of several violent attacks in which local police or officials participated. For example, the miners who upon government invitation rampaged through Bucharest in June, discussed below, were led into some Gypsy areas by police officers. The same minors also attacked many Gypsies on the streets of Bucharest. In each case, the police offered no protection.
In contrast to their passive stance in the face of attacks on certain minorities, the police on occasion have not hesitated to use force against peaceful demonstrators. For example, on April 24, approximately 1,000 police arrived in Bucharest's University Square, where a demonstration had been going on for two days. The police beat the demonstrators and arrested many of them. The demonstrators later returned to the square and remained for several weeks. At approximately 4:00 a.m. on June 13, police surrounded the square and arrested those still demonstrating. Many of those arrested reported being kicked and beaten with rubber sticks and metal rods. There were no known investigations into such instances of police misconduct.
Another disturbing trend was the government's use of extra-legal forces to establish order. The most dramatic example was then President-elect Iliescu's call on June 13 for miners to come to Bucharest to restore order. The stage for this event was set when the police forcibly cleared University Square on the morning of June 13. This was followed by a string of increasingly violent attacks by demonstrators on government buildings and the television station. Iliescu then called on "workers and conscientious people" to come to Bucharest to restore order. In the early morning of June 14, an estimated 10,000 miners arrived by train. For the next 48 hours, the miners terrorized opposition groups and newspapers, attacked opposition party headquarters, and committed random acts of violence against Gypsy communities and other innocent citizens. Much of the miners' violence was committed in the presence or with the actual assistance of the Bucharest police. Once again, a parliamentary commission was established to investigate these events, but no findings had been made public by year's end.
During 1990, Romanians frequently took to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government. On August 27, in response to the June violence, the mayor of Bucharest issued Decision 828 banning demonstrations in University Square and five other squares in central Bucharest. Protesters were left the right to demonstrate only in four parks in the capital. While this decree was not consistently enforced, it is an unnecessary limitation on freedom of speech and assembly.
The arrest and detention of hundreds of Romanians following the June events underscored the need for significant changes in the Romanian Code of Criminal Procedure, inherited from the Ceausescu era. Under the Code, a detainee can be held for a preliminary investigative period of 60 days without the right to seek judicial review, to confer with an attorney, or to have the detainee's family notified of his or her whereabouts. The Prosecutor General apparently issued a directive that defense attorneys be allowed access to their clients during the preliminary investigation. However, the directive did not create an enforceable right, in that access to an attorney at the earliest stages of the investigation remained within the discretion of the Prosecutor General, whose decision was not subject to judicial review. At the end of 1990, Parliament was discussing amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code which may include important improvements, especially with regard to guaranteed access to counsel during the preliminary investigation, and restrictions on the prosecutor's right to use and extend preventive detention.
Romania has one national, state-owned television station which is considered by many to have a strong pro-government bias. (Toward the end of 1990, several independent local stations with extremely restricted broadcast range were also established.) During the May election campaign, opposition political parties and independent organizations, as well as foreign election observers, consistently accused the national television station of allowing opposition candidates insufficient air time. Television reporting during the demonstrations in University Square also revealed a pro-government slant; television cameras focused almost exclusively on people in the square who appeared to be black-market dealers or petty thieves, giving the impression that the demonstrators consisted mainly of criminal elements. Calls for an independent national television station increased during the last months of 1990. The Romanian government, in turn, proposed legislation that would allow the establishment of private television stations by domestic or foreign private capital; at the same time, certain stations would remain in government hands. However, the draft legislation would apparently apply only to "commercial" stations, which independent journalists feared would be used as a mechanism for requiring all political reporting to be on government-controlled stations.
The Romanian government in 1990 failed to seek accountability for gross human rights abuses committed under the repressive Ceausescu regime. Several trials of former Ceausescu associates and family members resulted in convictions for charges related to genocide. Other former Communist Party officials and members of Securitate (the Ceausescu secret police) were under investigation or being tried for similar crimes. But the charge of genocide related to crimes committed only during the December revolution, and the testimony at the trials that were conducted was restricted to events that occurred during the week of December 17-25, 1989. The narrow scope of these prosecutions appears to have been an attempt to avoid embarassing disclosures about members of the post-Ceausescu government. No known effort was made to investigate, prosecute and punish those who committed abuses during the 25 years of Ceausescu rule.
The Romanian government failed to clarify the status of the Securitate. Despite its formal disbanding, many Romanians still feared that former Securitate officers were operating either independently of the government or in the newly organized security department, the Romanian Information Service. Lack of information about the whereabouts of former Securitate agents and the failure of the government publicly to investigate past Securitate abuses sustained an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that was detrimental to the building of democratic institutions.
The Bush administration played an important role throughout 1990 in holding the Romanian leadership to its commitments under international human rights law. Immediately after the December revolution, the Bush administration welcomed the changes that had occurred in the country. At the same time, it emphasized that it would carefully evaluate human rights developments in deciding on an aid package or the granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status. Unlike some Western countries, the Bush administration did not rush to send a high-level delegation to welcome the new Romanian leaders. Rather, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler spoke in conditional terms in mid-January: "The Romanian government's steps toward freedom of travel and immigration as well as movement toward a pluralistic, multiparty democracy will obviously be relevant to our consideration of [whether to grant MFN status]."
Throughout 1990, the Bush administration took a firm stand on human rights violations in Romania:
o In late January, it denounced efforts by Romanian officials to restrict the right to protest. State Department spokeswoman Tutwiler stated:
According to the State Department, these concerns were also raised by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter, during meetings with National Salvation Front officials in Bucharest.
o In mid-May, US Ambassador to Romania Alan Green was recalled to Washington for consultations. According to State Department spokeswoman Tutwiler, the action was "taken in light of the reports of irregularities in the Romanian electoral process which raise questions about whether those elections will be free and fair." This move was an important public signal to the Romanian government of the Bush administration's concern that the elections be free and fair. According to the State Department spokeswoman, these concerns were also raised directly with the Romanian government on several occasions, including by Secretary of State James Baker during a pre-election visit to Bucharest. The Bush administration also designated a special delegation to observe the May elections.
o In June, the Bush administration condemned the violence by vigilante groups in the center of Bucharest. State Department spokeswoman Tutwiler stated:
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also warned on June 15: "Until the democratic process is restored the United States has decided to withhold all non-humanitarian economic support assistance that Romania might be eligible for."
o In late June, Ambassador Green boycotted the inauguration of President Iliescu in a dramatic protest against the Romanian government's repressive actions of June 13-15.
The US embassy in Bucharest was also active in supporting and maintaining contact with a variety of civic groups, including all human rights organizations. In addition, according to statements made to Helsinki Watch by Bogdan Marinescu, Romania's new Minister of Health, the embassy played a positive role in raising concerns at a variety of levels about the conditions in Romania's orphanages.
However, the Bush administration was not persistent in publicly calling on the Romanian government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses. For example, it failed to use its considerable influence to keep pressure on the Romanian government to investigate thoroughly and make public its findings about the role of the army and police during the December revolution and during the events in Tirgu Mures in March and in Bucharest in June. Nor did the administration press for investigation and prosecution of those responsible for gross abuses during the Ceausescu era.
The Work of Helsinki Watch
Although the December 1989 revolution dramatically changed the human rights situation in Romania, Helsinki Watch recognized that post-Ceausescu Romania was likely to have continuing, serious human rights problems. Helsinki Watch saw Romania as needing special attention during its transition from totalitarian rule and directed additional resources toward its efforts to monitor human rights developments in that country.
Helsinki Watch was the first human rights organization to visit Romania after the December revolution. A Helsinki Watch/International Helsinki Federation (IHF) team arrived in Bucharest on January 3, 1990, the day the airport reopened. At the same time, another Helsinki Watch group entered Romania from Hungary and visited Timisoara before joining the others in Bucharest. A January newsletter called on the Romanian government to investigative past abuses, while cautioning about the implication of the government's decision to rely almost exclusively on military tribunals for the trials of those who had been arrested.
In late January, Helsinki Watch sent an observer to Bucharest to attend the trial of four of Ceausescu's former aides. The defendants confessed their guilt to crimes committed during the December revolution. Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter criticizing the trial for concentrating only on events that occurred during the December revolution and not exploring abuses during the Ceausescu years.
Because of the unremitting turbulence in Romania, Helsinki Watch saw a need to have a representative stationed in Romania to conduct human rights investigations. A Helsinki Watch researcher was stationed in Bucharest for six months, from April to October, observing and reporting on the volatile political situation and on various violations of human rights.
From April 16 to 24, a Helsinki Watch mission conducted an on-site investigation into the violent clashes that had occurred between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians in the town of Tirgu Mures in mid-March. Interviews were conducted with both Hungarians and Romanians, including numerous eyewitnesses and victims of the violence, and meetings were held with local government officials and members of the Prosecutor's office who were conducting the official investigation. The conclusions were published in a Helsinki Watch newsletter in May, which described how Gypsies had been made into scapegoats and held responsible for the clashes. The report also concluded that the army and police had failed miserably in anticipating the violence and responding to calls for assistance once the violence was in progress. This report, in Hungarian translation, was published in the newspaper Romaniai Magyar Szo.
In May, Helsinki Watch began investigating reports of human rights abuses connected with the Romanian election campaign. Meetings were held with party representatives in Bucharest, Bacau, Sibiu and several other cities, as well as with Election Board members. Victims of violence were also interviewed. A report was issued on May 15, just before the elections were held, setting out in detail the abuses that had created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation leading up to the elections.
The Helsinki Watch researcher in Romania was in Bucharest during the violent clashes in June and was able immediately to conduct interviews with victims of the clashes, visiting hospitals, party headquarters, and Gypsy homes on the outskirts of Bucharest, and meeting with the independent press, leaders of the numerous opposition groups, and the Prosecutor General of Romania. In early July, a Helsinki Watch delegation discussed the June events with Romanian government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Interior, and a close aide to President Iliescu. Helsinki Watch outlined its human rights concerns and presented a number of specific recommendations, including a suggestion that accurate information regarding the whereabouts of any detainee be made immediately available to his or her family. A Helsinki Watch newsletter was published in July deploring the Romanian government's call for the miners to come to Bucharest and expressing concern about the government's failure to protect the citizens of Bucharest from the miners' violent attacks. This report was published in Romanian translation in the newspaper Cuvintul and in Hungarian translation in the newspaper Romaniai Magyar Szo.
In August, a Helsinki Watch mission explored the conditions in Romanian orphanages and homes for the handicapped. The mission visited six orphanages and homes, toured a pediatric hospital, and visited two AIDS-baby hospitals. Talks were held with Romanian and foreign doctors and nurses at these institutions, and a meeting was held with the Minister of Health and the Director of the Institute for Infectious Diseases. An article entitled "How AIDS Came to Romania" appeared in The New York Review of Books on November 8. A newsletter from Helsinki Watch was also published in December setting out the human rights concerns raised by the cruel treatment of orphans in these institutions.
In late September, a Helsinki Watch mission laid the groundwork for an in-depth study of the situation of the Gypsies in Romania. Interviews were conducted with Gypsy leaders, as well as with individual Gypsies in and near Bucharest, Craiova, Sibiu, Tirgu Mures and Brasov. The delegation met with a mayor of a town that had been the site of significant Romanian-Gypsy conflict, and with an official in the Ministry of Education to discuss the proposed experimental education program designed specifically for Gypsy communities. A follow-up mission to explore the Gypsy issue further is planned for early January 1991.
In addition to the various investigative reports issued during the year, Helsinki Watch worked closely with budding Romanian human rights organizations and independent civic associations in an effort to provide information, share experience, and offer moral support.