Accessibility links

Watch List: May 6, 1999

6 May 1999, Volume 1, Number 17

THREE SYNAGOGUES ATTACKED IN RUSSIA. Bombs exploded near two Moscow synagogues on May 2 but did not damage either of the structures. The following day, a synagogue in Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia's Far East, was defaced with swastikas and a sign saying "Get Out!" Russia's Interior Ministry announced the formation of "an elite force" drawn from various agencies to investigate the Moscow explosions. Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said he suspects the pro-Nazi Russian National Unity group; Russian Jewish Congress leader Aleksandr Osovtzov put the blame on "communist or communist-fascist activity."

KYRGYZ DRAFT LAW SEEN CURBING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. The Kyrgyz parliament earlier this spring approved the first reading of a draft law intended to "regularize the activities of numerous sects" and to "reduce religious propaganda," said Jolbors Jorobekov, the bill's author, on state TV and radio. Oxford-based Keston, a news service focusing on religion, reported on April 30 that many people there are concerned that the new law will limit religious freedom, as it will not extend legal protections to unregistered groups. Keston notes that for years the media have harped on Kyrgyz converts, especially to Protestant Christianity, supposedly rising above 15,000 in number and many of them young.

CPJ NAMES TOP ENEMIES OF THE PRESS. Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, China's Jiang Zemin, and Cuba's Fidel Castro head the list of politicians cited on May 3 for "unrelenting and often brutal suppression of the press" by the independent, New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ denounced Milosevic for "intimidation, assault, crippling fines, and license denials." Named responsible for renewing hard-line attitudes toward the press, Jiang "shut down several newspapers, magazines, and book publishing houses." Castro was excoriated for eroding "any hope for improvement generated by Pope John Paul II's visit." Also listed among the top 10 "Enemies of the Press" in 1998 was Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma, placed sixth for "using tax and libel laws as instruments of his hostility to journalists."

KYRGYZ AND KAZAKH GOVERNMENTS TARGET NEWS MEDIA.... The Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee and the Vienna-based Helsinki Federation of Human Rights express their strong suspicions that state security officers raided an independent newspaper, "Asaba," on the night of April 24-25 and erased computer files related to employees in the Ministry of National Security. No locks were broken and nothing was stolen. Two days earlier, a senior official of the ministry called "Asaba," asked that the files be handed over, and threatened court action if the newspaper used material from the files. In another action, President Askar Akaev appointed the chief of the Ministry of National Security in the town of Osh, Imanberdi Jalilov, to head the Osh-3000 TV and radio company. At about the same time, the Bishkek city court ordered the independent weekly "Res Publica" to pay plaintiff Amanbek Karypkulov, head of state TV and radio, the equivalent of $6,670 for damaging his reputation with the publication of an open letter to Kyrgyz leaders, signed by a group of writers and 20 radio and TV employees. The letter criticized Karypkulov's "anti-constitutional" policies. In Kazakhstan, the government is pushing a new media law which would increase state control over all periodicals, TV channels, and radio stations, according to opposition members of parliament and journalists.

...BUT INDEPENDENT KOSOVO DAILY RETURNS. Shut down by Yugoslav authorities two days before NATO began its bombing campaign, the independent "Koha Ditore," the largest and most influential Albanian-language newspaper in Kosova, resumed publication from Macedonia on April 22. One month earlier, a Serbian court convicted the daily and its editor, Baton Haxhiu, for "inciting hatred between nationalities," and slapped a fine on both, a total of $34,000. Two days later, Serbian police shot and killed the guard at the newspaper building and ransacked the office.

BEIJING WARY OF TIANANMEN ANNIVERSARY IN JUNE. Chinese authorities are nervous about protests that may mark the tenth anniversary of the military assault on the peaceful demonstrators at Tiananmen Square on June 4, according to an April 29 AP report. Dissidents are being detained and their relatives pressured, Human Rights in China said in a statement obtained by AP. The recent surprise appearance of 10,000 followers of a mystical sect around party and government headquarters in Beijing has heightened official fears, AP adds. Last week, Chinese media disclosed how back in February, authorities "smashed" an Uighur Muslim separatist network in Xinjiang province, just as it was about to engage in terrorism.

BELARUS POLISH LEADER FINED. Tadeusz Gavin, chairman of the Association of Belarusian Poles, was fined the equivalent of $330 for organizing an unauthorized demonstration in Grovno and for defaming state officials, BBC reports. The demonstration, which protested violations of Polish minority rights, was held outside the association's office after the authorities turned down numerous applications for a permit. In an interview carried in the May 1999 issue of the "Belarusian Digest" published in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Gavin detailed the continuing oppression of ethnic Poles in Belarus.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Hungary's 600,000-strong Romany community and the cause of social equality in Central Europe scored a landmark victory in a small town in the northeastern region of that country. In the same county seat, Nyiregyhaza, where more than a hundred years ago a large press corps from across Europe watched a judge dismiss the charge of ritual murder against a village Jew, a court ruled last month that it is against the law to discriminate against Romany children in a public school. On April 22, the court of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County confirmed the judgment of a lower court last December that had held it illegal to ban Romany children in the town of Tiszavasvari from entering the Pethe Ferenc Elementary School's gym and cafeteria, and to consign them to a segregated graduation exercise. Even though Hungarian law is not based on the Anglo-Saxon principle of precedence, the unequivocal ruling does carry weight in other jurisdictions.

According to the Budapest-based Roma Press Center, the county court ordered the city government of Tiszavasvari, as the authority responsible for the school, to pay each of the 13 children who suffered discrimination the equivalent of about $450, a sizable sum. The court further expressed its disapproval by ordering the local government to pay the cost of the lawsuit and to reimburse the plaintiffs for their travel expenses.

Observers are divided as to when and how the Tiszavasvari judgment may lead to the disappearance of the nationwide practice of segregated schools. A 1995 survey of one-third of Hungary's educational institutions found 132 schools with segregated classes, and evidence suggests that their number has since increased. "The judgment against discrimination in Tiszavasvari is a positive development," says Erika Schlager of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. "The Hungarian legal system works, and that can foster Roma confidence in the law and mitigate factors which might otherwise lead to anti-state attitudes. The Roma can now feel that they can turn to courts to air their grievances. The judgment can also serve as a deterrent: Institutions guilty of discrimination may drop their practices when they realize they may have to pay a penalty in hard cash."

According to "The Chronicles of Everyday Events," compiled by the Roma Press Center and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, for more than two years the Tiszavasvari school has been instructing Romany children in segregated classes. Teachers justified their action by arguing that they responded to the non-Roma parents' request for segregation. When it came to the traditional graduation festivities, the teachers said that the non-Roma parents warned that unless their children celebrate separately, they would not take part. As for the cafeteria, the teachers said the non-Romany parents contributed funds to its construction, but on the condition that Romany children are kept out.

At the trial, town authorities claimed that public health considerations justified segregation, as "the majority" of the Romany children allegedly had lice and scabies.

Jozsef Sulyok, mayor of Tiszavasvar, countered that Tiszavasvari's Roma enjoy "positive discrimination" as their children are given food and medicine in the school. He emphasized that to eliminate the town's run-down Romany settlement on Szeles street, 78 new flats are being built. "The Chronicles," available in English on the "Homepage of Hungarian Gypsies" (, explains that as early as in 1997 Jeno Kaltenbach, Hungary's minority rights ombudsman, investigated the Tiszavasvari school and protested against the separate graduation. He found it discriminatory that Romany students could not use the gym.

The ombudsman urged the local government to make the job of the Family Aid Service more efficient and to work out a program to improve health standards in the town's Romany settlement. He asked the County Public Health Service for help. He suggested that the Minister of Public Welfare should start an investigation as to what kind of central measures would be needed to solve the social and health problems of settlements in a similar position as the one in Tiszavasvari.

While waiting for the government to act on the ombudsman's recommendations, Romany leaders felt that something needed to be done right away, and Aladar Horvath, head of the Romani Civil Rights Foundation in Budapest, filed a civil suit on behalf of the Romany children of Tiszavasvari. His move, which in his country is a rare instance of challenging the school system, stirred American interest. In a statement at the annual OSCE meeting in November 1998, in Warsaw, the U.S. delegation asked the Hungarians whether their government has developed a position in the Tiszavasvari case and is taking steps to address the widespread problem of segregated schools.

While the Hungarian response reiterated the official condemnation of all forms of discrimination and segregation, delegation members did not seem aware of the then-pending Tiszavasvari case.

Despite his victory in court -- a fairly new arena for Roma grievances -- Horvath is still apprehensive. He notes that neither last December's first ruling nor the binding judgment of April 22 has prompted the school to do anything to change its discriminatory routine. He is now waiting for the town's leaders to respond to his suggestion for a partnership to work out a joint program to improve living conditions for the local Roma. "For the children who received substandard education, it will take a lifetime to catch up," Horvath says. "The court's ruling is proof that segregation and inequality in educational opportunity are illegal. But our winning the case is a small matter when we compare it with the magnitude of the suppression of our civil rights."

An activist and a peacemaker, Horvath, 34, says that his community has a lot more cases to take to court. "Winning the Tiszavasvari case is only a first step," he told RFE/RL. "We have to shift to the judicial road our civil rights struggle."