by Petru Zoltan(Romania)
(This post was originally posted on https://www.tol.org/client/article/15266-an-open-wound.html)
A bloody clash between Romanians and the Romani minority in 1993 left their common village divided. Now, local people are working to restore harmony.
In 1993, one of the bloodiest interethnic conflicts between Romanians and the Romani minority in post-communist Romania erupted in a village called Hadareni. Twelve years later, legal cases continue to come before Romania’s courts.
The latest, due to open on 23 November in a local court, is an appeal against a ruling ordering the seizure of property that would then be sold to compensate the Romani victims of a night of violence that left three Roma dead and 14 houses burned to the ground. One of those lynched was my uncle, Mircea Zoltan.
I was 10 at the time, and knew only that my father had left by train that evening to Hadareni after a call to say that his brother had been killed. Ever since, for more than half my life, legal cases have slowly passed through local, national, and international courts. Though the events of that night – 20 September 1993 – now seem clear, the topic remains highly sensitive and only now are local people truly beginning to work to build bridges between their communities.
The events of that evening began when three Roma from Hadareni – Aurel Lacatus, his brother Rapa Lacatus, and Mircea Zoltan – tried to strike up a conversation with a young non-Roma woman, Liana Bucur. Subsequently, in court, Bucur declared that “the remarks of the Gypsies didn’t annoy me at all … I didn’t even react to them.”
But that seemingly innocuous conversation had been seen by an elderly villager, Gligor Chetan, who approached the men, spoke with them, and then pulled out a whip and struck them. They responded, witnesses say, by punching Chetan in the face.
Several ethnic Romanian villagers waiting nearby for their cattle to return from pasture then intervened. In the ensuing fracas, my uncle, Mircea Zoltan, and Aurel Lacatus managed to flee. Surrounded by a clutch of angry villagers, Rapa Lacatus then stabbed Craciun Chetan (no relative of Gligor). He died the same day in hospital in the neighboring town of Ludus.
At the time, the village of Hadareni – home to 900 people, of whom 200 were Roma and 130 were ethnic Hungarians – was not noted for ethnic tensions. But soon after Chetan’s death was announced, a crowd of 50 villagers gathered and, carrying clubs, hatchets, pitchforks, and bottles of gasoline, they then converged on the Roma settlement.
The three men were soon found in a deserted house where they had taken shelter. The police chief of the neighboring town of Chetani, Ioan Mega, arrived on the scene, but – as a report by the European Roma Rights Center found – just as the men were negotiating to be taken into custody in return for police protection, the house was set alight. Within minutes the three men were dead: Rapa Lacatus was lynched after he had already been handcuffed by Mega; Pardalian Lacatus was killed as he tried to flee the burning house; Zoltan burned to death in the house after he had been attacked with shovels during an unsuccessful attempt to emerge from the house.
During the night, another 13 houses in the Romani settlement were torched, and another five were ransacked. This despite the arrival of more police from the region’s capital, Tirgu Mures, at around 9 p.m. Later, witnesses would testify in a Tirgu Mures court that the police had not just failed to intervene to stop the arson, but had even urged the crowd on to set more houses on fire.
THE COURT CASES
A judicial investigation of the incident began the next day, but progress was to be slow.
The cases against two policemen implicated in the events – Ioan Moga and Sergeant Alexandru Susca –were, as Romanian law requires, sent before a military court in October 1994, 13 months after the events. In 1995, the military prosecutor dropped charges against them, saying the two policemen had not incited the violence and had been unable to influence the behavior of the villagers and could not in that case be considered to have taken part in the events.
Eventually, in 1997, civilian prosecutors in Tirgu Mures indicted five men – Nicolae Gall, Severius Ioan Precup, and three cousins, Pavel Bucur, Petru Bucur, and Vasile Dorel Bucur (none of whom are related to Liana Bucur) – on a charge of “extremely serious murder,” the highest degree of murder in the Romanian criminal code. Six others were indicted for destroying property and incitement to violence.
In 1998, four of the five charged with murder were found guilty and sentenced to terms of between three and seven years. The fifth defendant, Petru Bucur, escaped a conviction for murder but was later sentenced to six years in prison for damage to property and incitement to violence. The court handed down jail terms of between two and five years to the six other defendants charged with lesser crimes.
Though the sentences for those convicted of destroying property fell within the range of one to five years typical for such crimes, the lightness of the murder sentences prompted questions: under the Romanian criminal code, murder can carry a punishment of 15 to 25 years. The judges justified their decisions on the poor quality of the investigations and the argument that not all those who had contributed to the violence had been charged. “The culprits judged must not be held accountable for all the crimes committed,” the Tirgu Mures judges ruled.
Those initial doubts about the court’s judgment were compounded over the next two years, when the sentences were lightened still more. In 1999, Romania’s supreme court acquitted Nicolae Gall and reduced the convictions of the other three, downgrading the crime from extremely serious murder to homicide. Then, in 2000, then-president Emil Constantinescu pardoned two of the three men still in prison and reduced the punishment of the third.
Salt was poured into the reopened wound by the government’s decision to pay Gall 3 billion lei (85,000 euros) in compensation for the nearly three years that he had spent in detention and in prison. That sum dwarfed the 100 million lei (2,800 euros) that Mircea Zoltan’s widow is supposed to receive in compensation (that award is now subject to an appeal). “The discrepancy shows the extraordinary cynicism of the judges who consider that the suffering for losing a family member killed in a bestial manner is worth 100 million lei, and the unlawful arrest of Gall is worth 3 billion lei,” said Meda Gama, a lawyer who has represented the Roma since 2003.
THE SITUATION NOW
For nearly five years, court cases produced no major change in the overall picture. “No court has officially recognized the pogrom or done anything to hold responsible the authorities [the local police] that participated in the events,” Gama says, highlighting some of the main outstanding issues.
Events have, though, moved fast in recent months.
In 2003, a regional court in Mures ordered seven local people found guilty of involvement in the arson to pay those whose property was torched compensation of 1.3 billion lei (roughly 37,000 euros) plus moral damages of 580 million lei (around 16,000 euros). The ruling was later confirmed in May 2005 by the High Court of Justice and Cassation, the new name for Romania’s supreme court.
In the meantime, a case brought by in 2000 by 25 people from the Hadareni settlement was passing through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The group argued that the Romanian state was guilty of discrimination, tolerating torture, breaching the right to a fair trial, and breaching the right to a private and family life, all of which fall under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Both cases climaxed in mid-2005. In July, in two separate rulings, the ECHR ordered Romania to pay a total of 500,000 euros to the 25 applicants. Eighteen of them have since received a total payment of 262,000 euros in a “friendly settlement” with the state. The other seven, who argued the settlement was too small and chose not to accept the terms, were awarded a total of 238,000 euros. And in summer, the Mures Court of Appeal ordered the police to start seizing the houses of the seven people obliged to pay compensation for their role in the violence.
The possibility that properties might be seized raised tensions in the village, with extra policemen (and also firemen) being drafted into Hadareni. To date, the properties have not been seized.
Perhaps galvanized by recent developments and the ECHR’s criticisms, the National Agency for the Roma (ANR), created by the government last year to replace the former Department of Romani Affairs, is now sponsoring projects to improve relations among local ethnic Romanians, Hungarians, and the Roma that remain in the village.
One ambitious scheme put forward by the agency got off the ground in September, when representatives of local and governmental authorities, Romanian NGOs, and Romani and non-Romani people from Hadareni met to find ways to fight discrimination in the village. They formed specialized teams to work on anti-discrimination campaigns for schools and the wider community and to look into ways to upgrade the local health system, housing, and infrastructure and to create more jobs in the area. The meeting was put together by the Partners for Local Development Foundation (FPDL), an independent NGO.
For two days, Roma and non-Roma people from the village talked and planned – the first time in 12 years the two sides had worked together.
By the end of the year, the ANR and the FPDL plan to have drafted a long-term government strategy to improve the situation in Hadareni, a strategy based on the community’s own needs and targeting the community as a whole. “The situation not only of the Roma, but of the entire community in Hadareni should change and the authorities should treat them all equally,” says the FDPL’s program officer Simona Pascariu.
Projects worth 1 million euros have already been set up to improve the village’s infrastructure and health and education systems.
“The central government should fulfill its promises and … initiate real changes, not cosmetic changes,” Pascariu said. The FDPL and ANR believe Hadareni will have to undergo profound change if it is to become a “European village,” a prosperous village in which the ethnic groups live at peace with each other.
They hope this will be the case by 2008, one year after Romania is due to join the European Union.
Petru Zoltan is a Bucharest-based journalist and contributor to the national daily Jurnalul National. He is the nephew of Mircea Zoltan, one of the three Roma killed in the events in Hadareni.