(Washington, DC--September 30, 2004) The weakness of the rule of law is the single greatest factor contributing widespread discrimination against people of Romany origin in Russia, three Roma affairs experts told a RFE/RL audience last week. Described as “victims of racism throughout the Russian Federation,” the Roma, according to the panel, are victimized primarily because of popular perceptions that have arisen since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
European Roma Rights Center Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova, Leonid Raihman of the Open Society Institute and Alexander Torokhov, Director of the Yekaterinburg-based NGO "Roma Ural," said that the Roma, along with those of Jewish or "Caucasian" origins, are among the most stigmatized groups in Russia. In fact, Petrova asserted, each of the three government-inspired "campaigns" currently underway in Russia, regardless of intent, in practice victimizes members of these groups: the "war on terrorism" targets "Caucasians," referring to the ethnic groups clustered on either side of the Caucasus Mountains; the "war on corruption" is popularly seen as focused on Jewish-owned businesses; while the "war on drugs" targets Romany communities that are widely perceived in Russia as drug dealing centers. Local media coverage and statements by local politicians often fuel these perceptions, Torokhov noted -- even though, according to Petrova, less than one percent of the Roma community is involved at any level in Russia's drug trade.
Raihman reported that his investigation into anti-Roma discrimination found that police often target Roma unfairly for arbitrary document and literacy checks as well as unjustified searches of Roma homes and settlements, safe in the knowledge that many Roma do not possess proper documentation and cannot defend themselves in the Russian legal system. As a result, Roma often are forces to pay bribes to police, to make such accusations and charges "go away".
When asked to compare the level of discrimination faced by Roma in Russia and in Central Europe, Petrova asserted that the situation is "much worse" in Russia, citing the routine nature of the police raids, beatings and torture faced by Roma. Petrova said that, while international organizations such as the UN work to combat anti-Roma discrimination, more needs to be done to strengthen legal protections and fight police corruption and abuse as a means of protecting not just the Roma, but all vulnerable groups, citing the 2000 General Recommendation on the Roma of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
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