Members of the Roma, Europe’s largest and most marginalised minority, have been exposed to increased policing and police violence during the pandemic, according to rights groups, experts, lawyers and several members of the community interviewed by Al Jazeera.
Across several European countries, including Romania, North Macedonia and Slovakia, racism, violence and misuse of state power towards Roma men, women and children have reportedly risen as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus health crisis.
Al Jazeera spoke to a 20-year-old Roma man who was shot by the police last October in Homocea, a village in northern Romania. He was later arrested for assaulting a police officer.
“What started as an argument about a marital affair turned into a brawl between my client and his neighbour. Local and state police were called to the scene, where a crowd had gathered to watch the fight,” his lawyer, Eugen Ghita, told Al Jazeera.
“My client broke away from the fight and tried to escape the scene. That is when a state police officer opened fire and shot him six times without any warning.”
The Roma man, who requested anonymity, was hospitalised with severe back injuries.
After three days in the emergency unit, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer.
“From hospital, he went straight to prison where he spent the following six months for something he had not done. Since March, he’s been under house arrest in his parents’ home,” said Ghita.
“My client’s parents are in precarious work situations, having to find work on a day-to-day basis. It is a very difficult situation for all of them.”
Al Jazeera spoke to the man over a video call.
“I didn’t know if I was going to survive,” he said. “If I am ever in a situation with the police, I will not trust them to help because I suspect they would treat me differently just because I am Romani.”
According to Nico Remus, chief inspector at the Romanian Vrancea County Police Inspectorate, the police officer in question acted in accordance with the law.
“Our officer was in immediate danger due to the unjust attack of the aggressor. In such a case, the authorities may use a weapon to defend themselves,” Remus told Al Jazeera by email, confirming that the officer still works for the Romanian police.
But Ghita maintains that violence and unjust charges against Roma are standard practice.
“The authorities don’t treat Roma like ordinary citizens. Whenever there is a minor problem involving a person with a Roma background, the police often use disproportionate force while instating maximum penalties.”
One such incident made its way to the European Court of Justice; in October 2017, police killed a 21-year-old man in Mures, a county in central Romania.
“The 21-year-old was walking through a forest with his three nephews aged 10 to fourteen. A local called the police to inform them that a Roma man was stealing wood from the forest.
“The police turned up and shot him in the head while the three minors watched. He died in hospital one hour later. The Romanian court freed the police officer, ruling it was a case of manslaughter,” Ghita said.
The case remains open at the ECJ.
At the time of publishing, the Romanian Interior Ministry had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Romania has one of Europe’s largest Roma populations.
Research this year by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) suggests that most incidents in Europe of alleged police violence towards the Roma take place in Romania.
But accounts of police misconduct against Roma in other parts of Eastern Europe also appear in reports by Amnesty International and Roma rights groups such as the ERGO Network, and the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC).
Jonathan Lee, ERRC spokesman, said he has recorded an unprecedented rise in complaints of police misconduct during the pandemic, in countries including Romania, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Slovakia.
“We had seven cases of police misconduct from several European countries just in the first half of April [last year] as opposed to before the pandemic when we got one or two complaints a month,” said Lee.
“Now, the pretext for the violence is almost always related to COVID measures like someone not wearing a mask, congregating in a bigger group or not having their identification on them.”
A report published by the ERRC in October 2020 included an incident in Slovakia, where a Roma man was allegedly subjected to violence from a police officer.
The man was smoking a cigarette in front of his home in Bánovce nad Bebravou, in northwest Slovakia, but police stopped him for not wearing a mask at the time.
The ERRC spoke to the victim’s nephew, who recalled the scene.
“They immediately shoved him against the car and twisted his arm. They pressed on his neck, and my uncle was choking. What’s more, the officers themselves weren’t wearing the required face masks correctly either.”
The incident was recorded and reported by a Roma media outlet based in Slovakia, Gipsy TV.
Amnesty’s Human Rights researcher Barbora Cernusakova told Al Jazeera that she is concerned that law enforcement authorities could be abusing their powers against minorities during lockdowns, and be enjoying impunity.
“Roma communities in countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, France, Serbia and Slovakia had been heavily policed in 2020, including the deployment of the army. We also obtained information about the unlawful use of force by law enforcement officials against the residents in several such communities,” she said.
According to a December 2020 Amnesty report, a police officer beat five Roma children aged seven to 11 in Krompachy, Eastern Slovakia, with his truncheon.
The group said the four girls and a boy went to get wood and play in an area where they had previously been allowed, when an officer chased and threatened to shoot them.
The children spoke to Gipsy TV.
“We went to get wood when a cop began to chase us and shouted at us that if we didn’t stop, he would shoot us. After that, he beat us,” one said.
According to the Gipsy TV report, local military physicians treated the children. But their parents did not receive medical records of their injuries.
An investigation of police misconduct is still under way.
Petra Friese, a Slovak Interior Ministry spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera in a written statement that the investigation continues.
According to Amnesty’s Cernusakova, governments must ensure prompt, impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of police brutality.
“The ruling bodies should immediately develop measures to mitigate the disproportionate effects that lockdown measures may have on marginalised groups,” she said.