Courtesy Reuters

Roma Rights, Roma Wrongs

EUROPE'S GYPSY PROBLEM

Several years ago, a Western law-enforcement adviser working in Romania -- a country where police abuse has been widely reported -- noticed a common explanation for the country's astronomically high conviction rate: nearly every prosecution commenced with the defendant's confession. All the more surprising, then, that one of the nation's most infamous crimes -- a 1993 case in which a raging mob in the town of Hadareni murdered three men and burned down more than a dozen homes -- was stymied in the courts. No indictment. No trial. The reason, as the local mayor made clear at the time: the victims were "Gypsies," and prosecution of their killers would not have been popular.

Today, after more than eight years of international pressure and several protracted court proceedings, the families of the Hadareni victims are still waiting for justice. And Romania hardly enjoys a monopoly on impunity for violence against Roma (the name many Gypsies use for themselves). Throughout much of Europe, Roma are among the most hated, misunderstood, and mistreated of people. Their renown as musicians, dancers, and palm-readers is surpassed only by the near-universal belief among the Gadze -- or non-Roma -- that Gypsies are also liars, thieves, and cheats. Robert Jordan, the sympathetic hero of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, could have been speaking for many contemporary Europeans when he said, "The gypsy ... is truly worthless. He has no political development, nor any discipline, and you could not rely on him for anything."

In Europe today, negative myths about Gypsies penetrate childhood stories, family legends, and the fabric of everyday life. People reveal their anti-Roma prejudice unhesitatingly, in the most casual conversations. "I don't like them," says a Budapest florist as she wraps up some daisies. "Can't trust them," warns a taxi driver. The stereotypes about Gypsies are so insidious that even some leading human rights activists share the tendency to minimize the extent of Roma mistreatment, to react defensively when their national governments are criticized

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