Fatal Consequences of Racist Policing: 27-year-old Romani Man Dead in Police Custody in Albania – European Roma Rights Centre

11 October 2023

After more than four months of silence from the police, public prosecutor, and ministry of interior, the family of a 27-year-old Romani man who died after police intervention are still without answers. The ERRC have written to the Albanian General Prosecutor and Minister of Internal Affairs to demand justice.

Jani Rustemaj, 27, was arrested at 15.00 on 13 April 2023 close to the “Delijorgji” residential block in Tirana by police officers from Police unit no. 2. He was later pronounced dead in police custody after going into a coma at the “Mother Teresa” University Hospital Center in Tirana due to an alleged methadone overdose. 

Jani’s death has raised concerns about allegations of police misconduct and violence towards him in the hours preceding his death. The hospital initially attributed Jani’s coma to a methadone overdose. However, his family denied these allegations by stating that their son was not a drug addict and had no health issues when the police took him into custody. The family accuse the police of exercising violence and have provided evidence of contusions, broken front teeth, and a broken leg as indications of police brutality, which they noticed and photographed during their visits to the hospital. 

Multiple organisations have begun investigating the incident, with the Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) revealing that Jani was denied admission to two penitentiary institutions without providing valid reasons for their refusal. The AHC is concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability in the admission process of penitentiary institutions. They have highlighted mistreatment, racial bias, and discriminatory practices against Roma by state authorities and called for a thorough investigation into the matter to ensure that Jani’s rights were not violated. 

“It is deeply troubling that Jani Rustemaj, a 27-year-old Romani man, died under such circumstances while in police custody. This incident highlights the pressing issue of police misconduct and brutality targeting Roma individuals. Jani Rustemaj’s family’s allegations of visible signs of violence on his body indicate the urgent need for a thorough and impartial investigation into his death. This incident should catalyse broader discussions and actions aimed at eradicating discrimination against the Romani community and ensuring that justice is served.” Said the ERRC’s Legal Consultant in Albania, Manjola Veizi.

Despite several requests for information from the relevant authorities, it has been over four months since Jani Rustemi’s tragic death, and the family has received no response from the authorities regarding the status of the investigation or the results of forensic examinations.  Given the ineffectiveness and failure of authorities to ensure justice, the family has decided to pursue legal action independently. Transparency and accountability are vital in cases involving potential human rights violations. This prolonged lack of information has caused immense distress to the grieving family, prompting the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) to act. The ERRC has written to Mr. Taulant Balla, Minister of Internal Affairs, and Mr. Olsian Cela, General Prosecutor, and called for an immediate and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding Jani Rustemi’s arrest, the alleged maltreatment by police officers, and his untimely death. The organisation urges the relevant authorities to expedite the investigation and give the Rustemi family the answers they deserve.

Jani’s death is not an isolated incident. The ERRC has reported on and litigated numerous cases of suspicious deaths of Roma by police across Europe that have caused significant international outrage and calls for justice. Henri Lenfant, a young Romani man in France, lost his life under suspicious circumstances while under police custody. Another disturbing incident was the death of a Romani man, Stanislav Tomas, in the Czech Republic, which was recorded by a witness and went viral. The video showed Tomas being restrained by multiple officers with a knee on the back of his neck in a pose reminiscent of the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. In Greece, Nikos Sabanis, an 18-year-old unarmed Romani man, was fatally shot by Athenian police, leading to widespread protests. Most recently, the ERRC brought a criminal complaint regarding the death of Muszunye Mircea Vișan, a 33-year-old Romani man, who died in a police station in Arad, Romania, after police officers beat him until he went into cardiac arrest. 

These incidents are not limited to a specific geographic area. For a comprehensive understanding of the extent of the problem, this map visually represents the alarming frequency and distribution of incidents of police harassment, brutality, disproportionate force, torture in custody, or law enforcement actions resulting in the death of a Romani person across Europe.

Suspicious deaths of Romani people while under arrest in Europe highlight a systemic problem of discrimination and mistreatment towards Roma within the criminal legal system. When viewed at a European level, it is clear that the problem is not merely one or two isolated incidents of brutality but a systemic issue of institutional racism. Measures must be taken to ensure accountability for any misconduct or negligence that leads to the death of Romani individuals in police custody. It is essential to consider the history of racial bias in the policing of Roma and to examine any potential racial motivations in the investigation. 

Killings of Roma by law enforcement in various European countries have sparked outrage and calls for justice in recent years.  The lack of action and fair investigation in response to Jani’s death and the countless Roma before him is a stark reminder that prejudice and discrimination persist in societies claiming to uphold democratic values and human rights. 

It is vital that we do not allow the memory of these lost lives to fade into history. Their names must be remembered as a catalyst for change. We must demand accountability from those responsible, advocate for reforms in police training and procedures, and tirelessly work to dismantle the systemic discrimination and racism that afflicts our criminal legal systems. Only by ensuring that those responsible for these crimes are legally answerable can we hope to end the mistreatment of Roma and ensure that such tragedies are never repeated.

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