The murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin sparked unprecedented protests against structural racism and police brutality across the U.S., with at least 15 million people taking to the streets to protest in the first month. Soon the protests spread across the globe, turning into an international movement of solidarity against racism. In Europe, anti-racism protests used the Black Lives Matter movement as an opportunity to oppose the legacies of European imperialism and current xenophobic politics.
The necessity of these European anti-racism protests was apparent a few weeks ago when a video came out of a Romani man being brutalized by three Czech police officers. In the video, Stanislav Tomáš is seen screaming, pinned on his stomach as one of the three police officers kneels on his neck in a manner reminiscent of the Floyd video.
When the video ends after a few minutes, Tomáš is no longer moving. Police claim he died in an ambulance soon after due to a methamphetamine overdose. The incident has caused a furore among activists and the Romani community, who point to the similarities to Floyd’s death. Czech institutions deny any wrongdoing on the part of the police. Roma activists in Kosovo joined the protest earlier this week, marching in downtown Prishtina and demonstrating outside the Czech embassy holding “Racism kill” signs.
The Council of Europe has made urgent demands for the case to be investigated, describing police actions as “alarming.” Calls for an independent investigation have also been issued by the international human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
This horrifying incident, and the chilling response of Czech authorities, is an indication of the oppression Romani people face everyday in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe.
Kosovo too cannot claim innocence when it comes to racism.
Despite the fact that Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are constituent minorities of Kosovo whose rights are protected in the Constitution, they nevertheless face constant discrimination and marginalization. The country’s progressive legal framework acts as a smokescreen; despite all the commitments made on paper, the rights of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian rarely materialize.
The biggest victim of this structural racism is minority children. Facing poverty, they are often forced to drop out of school and earn money through various odd jobs on the streets. According to a 2018 report, 17% of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian children are engaged in labor. The cycle of dropping out of school at an early age to enter the informal labor market reinforces poverty conditions for already vulnerable children, and furthermore puts them in physical danger.
No case is more exemplifying of the failure of Kosovo institutions to protect minority children than the tragic murder of Kujtim Veseli, an 11-year-old Ashkali boy from Fushë Kosovë who was repeatedly sexually harassed, raped and murdered almost two years ago.
Prior to his murder, authorities had been alerted that Sefedin Osmani, who had 26 prior criminal charges and 15 indictments, one of which was for murder, had been systematically raping the victim, who was the culprit’s neighbor. Osmani’s father reported his own son to the police in January 2019, but the culprit was not questioned until April when he admitted to sexually abusing the victim. Despite being a recidivist offender and confessing to the crime, police and the prosecutor let Osmani go.
A few months later, on July 11, Veseli’s lifeless body was found beneath a staircase in Fushë Kosovë. He had been raped and murdered by Osmani, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison last year.
Veseli’s violent death sparked a series of protests and inspired the Justice for Kujtim initiative. The initiative seeks a public apology from Kosovo institutions to Kujtim Veseli’s family for depriving the boy of his right to life, an independent criminal investigation against the officers involved in the case for failing to fulfill their official duties to protect Veseli, and a government compensation payment to the family.
More importantly, the initiative highlights that the negligence in Veseli’s case was not an accident, but a result of structural racism and bigotry in our public institutions.
In response to the initiative, police told activists that they conducted sensitivity training sessions with police officers as well as an internal disciplinary procedure against the two officers involved in the case, despite finding no wrongdoing. The Kosovo Prosecutorial Council (KPC) also published the decision of the Supreme Court, which announced a temporary 70% salary cut for one of the prosecutors responsible for the case.
Activists’ requests for access to public files documenting this disciplinary procedure against the prosecutor were denied. The KPC cited confidentiality concerns and maintained that they were under no obligation to grant access, a decision that led activists to sue the KPC earlier this year.
Not only have the police and the State Prosecutor not apologized to Veseli’s family, they have actively hindered the initiative to bring the family a semblance of justice. Last July, when activists wanted to hold a protest in front of the State Prosecutor’s office on the day they planned to hand in their petition, police denied the request by citing the pandemic. In their lawsuit against the Kosovo Police, activists noted that the decision was unfair and illegal; at the time this decision was taken larger gatherings were organized unobstructed, such as one attended by the deputy prime minister.
Last October, while she was still assembly speaker, current President Vjosa Osmani gave a persuasive speech at the Kosovo Assembly, saying that Kujtim Veseli’s murder was a double failure: “It is a failure of human empathy, as well as an institutional failure of professionalism and responsibility.” Osmani also shared the petition calling for justice and accountability.
Nevertheless, only 2,500 people signed the petition, an indication of how little we as a society value the life of a child, especially when they belong to a minority community.
The only demand of the Justice for Kujtim initiative that has been granted since the group’s launch last July on the anniversary of Veseli’s murder is the compensation payment from the government.
On June 22 the Kurti government decided they would disburse 20,000 euros to the victim’s family citing both the petition’s demand and a recommendation from the Kosovo Ombudsman, which had confirmed that Veseli’s human rights had been violated as a result of institutional neglect. Announcing the decision, Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Veseli was the firstborn child and had left school to try to help out his family. “We are supporting the family symbolically,” Kurti said. “It is the only tool we have as a government and can use.”
While the amount seems minute compared to the loss that the family has suffered, it is a good step towards acknowledging the harm that has been done to Veseli and his family.
However, it is not enough.
On the second anniversary of Veseli’s untimely death, we must demand proper accountability from the state institutions that so nonchalantly looked the other way when they were notified about the abuse of a young Ashkali child. Heartfelt speeches by the chief prosecutor are devoid of meaning if they are not followed up with independent investigations into the police officers and prosecutors involved in the case.
The life of an 11-year-old was cut short due to the negligence of the people whose job it is to protect us. We must not allow those responsible to carry on as if Kujtim Veseli’s life had no value, and we must make the institutional and social changes necessary to ensure this can never happen again.
Feature image: Jeta Dobranja.
This publication is part of op-ed series published by the campaign Justice for Kujtim. The illustration is supported by the grants scheme “Kujtim Veseli” managed by NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian.