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Leave Your Rights at the Door if You Visit a Romanian Police Station

The majority of abuses take place during a statutory procedure stipulated extensively in the 31st paragraph of the Romanian Law for Police. The problem is that in the document the escorted individual's rights aren't as clearly stated as the police...
March 31, 2014, 2:41pm

On March 18, the Brigade of Drug Activists (BADD) organized a meeting in front of Bucharest's Municipal Police Station to commemorate those who died while in police custody.

The Romanian Police's slogan is "Safety and Trust," yet some weeks ago a 26-year-old man died while in police custody at the 10th Precinct in Bucharest. Daniel Gabriel Dumitrache was allegedly running a one-man racketeering operation from Unirii Square's parking lot, and so on the evening of March 4 police officers escorted him to the station for identification. He left the police station in a body bag, with the forensic report pointing at three possible causes of death: anemia, ruptured spleen, or abdominal bleeding. This is at best a story of police negligence and at worst one of police brutality.

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It's not the first case of its kind, either. In the last two decades, Romania has had to pay more than 100,000 Euros [$138,000] worth of damages to the European Court for Human Rights for torture violations. These include a hate crime, an accidental handicapping, and a beating that occured in a postal office after the victim stole six bottles of mineral water.

As in the case of the 10th Precinct, the majority of abuses take place during a statutory procedure stipulated extensively in the 31st paragraph of the Romanian Law for Police, called ”administrative escorting to the police station." The problem is that in the particular document the escorted individual's rights aren't as analyticaly laid out as the police officer's.

The Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania – Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH), has been struggling to change that since 2011. I met up with their executive director, Niki Andreescu, to understand why they have not succeeded yet and how these abuses happen.

VICE: Is it normal that this "administrative escorting" procedure exists?
Niki Andreescu, APADOR-CH: ”Administrative escorting” implies depriving a person of his or her freedom. It is reasonable that it exists, with the condition that the time the police can keep you is up to 24 hours and that they grant you minimum security: the right to notify someone about the place one is being kept, the obligation of the police officer to call a doctor if the person complains of fatigue or the symptoms of a disease, the possibility to sue against such a method, and a written document of the proceeding that the person deprived of freedom gets to keep.

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The only administrative procedure currently enforced is done by the police, and they just write down the person's name in a registry kept in the police station. That is the only way you can prove that you were indeed being held at that police station. Aside from that, the law does not grant you any other right.

Why haven't you managed to modify the law?
In 2012, we managed to convince a group of MPs to introduce the law modifications in parliament, but it got rejected. The government did not back the proposal. We are insisting though.

Under what conditions are police officers allowed to use force against those escorted to the station?
Under no circumstances. Police officers can immobilize a person if they become violent toward others or themselves. Even immobilizing is an extreme procedure, which goes against Article 5 of the Constitution—the right to be free and safe, guaranteed by the Convention of Human Rights. Immobilizing needs to be proportional to the intensity of the act, and it needs to be statutory by the law.

There are no statistics for police brutality in Romania. Why?
If you get beaten up at the precinct, you have to go to the Forensic Institute and get a medical certificate stating that you were hurt. Although they sometimes accept evidence such as photos or video recordings, that certificate is sacred. Then you have to go to the Prosecutor’s Office to file a complaint.

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In Romania, however, the only people who make these complaints are relatives of the deceased or people who are so desperate that they feel they have nothing to lose. Many of these complaints are annihilated by the police because they accuse the plaintiff of contempt toward authorities. The people from the Romanian Police always cover for each other. Their mentality is still that of a military organization—they operate within a closed caste system.

Participants lit candles in solidarity with those who died.

How are the Romanian Police monitored?
A so-called form of control would be the Territorial Authority for Public Order (ATOP), formed by local counselors, the chief of police, and the chief of riot police. But that just means the police are watching over themselves. There is very little external control from a few NGOs.

There aren't any programs making sure that even the old lady from the village of Pungești knows her rights. These should be organized by the Romanian Institute for Human Rights, but their sole activity is publishing a study every once in a while. And most police abuses happen in rural areas where the police chief has the utmost authority.

Is there any way the European Committee could regulate the system?
Yes, through the Committee for Torture Prevention (CPT). The next CPT visit is this summer. They visit a few governmental institutions and put together a report that they first submit to the Romanian government, so they can comment on it. Then they publish the report and the comment. The recommendations need to be appropriated and corrected. Three days after their last visit, in 2010, the government had to close the section that held minors in the Rahova Maximum Security Penitentiary.

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Some cases make their way to ECHR, and the fines are paid by the Romanian government from the taxpayers' money. How many sanctions does Romania have?
We have a leading position in sanctions because of detention conditions—we're pretty much on a roll when it comes to this sort of rulings, and there are still many to come because these cases do not get solved easily. A notable case is Mugurel Soare's, who received whopping damages of 130,000 Euros [$179,000]. He was seen chasing his brother-in-law on the street because he had hit Mugurel's sister. He was a Roma though, so the police officers thought he had stolen something and they shot him in the head. Mugurel is now unable to work and mute. He can only understand what you are saying if you look into his eyes and talk in simple words.

Did the police officers get sanctioned?
Not at all. ECHR forces the state to pay damages, so the police officers should be sanctioned internally. If things were done properly in the country, we wouldn't get to the ECHR so often. The Romanian state should target the guilty. The Ministry of Finance is the one that pays the damages, but nobody is asking, "Why am I constrained to pay?" The Ministry of Finance should open legal action in retrospect to recover the money.

The Alliance for Roma Unity states that the death of Daniel, the parking-lot racketeer, has a racist motive. Is ethnical discrimination a relevant factor in the case of the beatings?
In some cases, yes. The most targeted groups are the vulnerable ones: sex workers, drug addicts, homeless people. They form those marginal groups that obviously have fewer recourses and fewer chances to file a complaint. Also, they deal with police officers daily. These abuses usually involve hitting the soft spots on the body so as to not break any bones.

Are the police officers the problem, or is there a systemic flaw that perpetuates this sort of behavior?
It is obvious there isn't any form of psychological training for officers. There are some tests, but we all know how those are done. There is a serious lack of education in the sense of respecting human rights. The Institute for Public Order has had a human-rights model in its mandatory curriculum for continuous training for the past few years. But only 30 to 40 policemen per year take it, because it is optional. The police chiefs could send them off to take different modules: weapons, logistics, or traffic. Either way, it's not enough to take a two-day course; human-rights training should start at the academy.

How is Romanian society affected by the fact that the police break the law?
We should try to see the big picture: not all of them are wretched. Only a few, OK? But that's not necessarily what the public thinks. In order for the police to regain the population's trust, these perpetrators should be sanctioned, to set an example.