Tiziano L. lives with his family in the town of Singen in southwest Germany near the Swiss border. On Saturday afternoon, the 11-year-old played with other children while his mother was nearby, visiting his grandmother. This is how the German and Romanian Sinti Association in the state of Baden-Württemberg described the event. Then, two police officers approached the children, asked their names, and left again for a while. After that, two different officers approached and took Tiziano back to the station in handcuffs.
As of Tuesday, the family has filed charges against police officers.
The Ministry of Interior’s initial response to Baden-Württemberg to DW said: “What can be confirmed is that on February 6, an incident occurred in Singen in which a boy with a hand strap had to be taken to the police station.”
However, on Wednesday, local police issued a statement denying any knowledge of the incident. The Interior Ministry later followed up, saying its new understanding was that “police escorting of children” had worked, so “no restraint” was involved. On Thursday, police admitted to having brought the boy in, prompting another clarification from the country’s interior ministry: yes, the boy was indeed handcuffed.
“What’s rotten in Singen police station?”
“If a ministry takes two days to confirm whether a child is handcuffed or not, you ask yourself: What’s so bad in Singen police station?” family lawyer, Mehmet Daimagüler, told DW.
He said Tiziano told how one officer, after asking his name, said he was a “gypsy” member, and that people “knew them.”
“Racism and discrimination have no place in the Baden-Württemberg state police, as a result we are rightly pursuing any suspected cases,” the Interior Ministry said, adding that they were seeking “a comprehensive investigation into the incident.”
Did the police not allow the child to contact the mother, as she claims? The police and ministry have not yet answered this and other questions, referring to the ongoing investigation. Finding out exactly what happened on Saturday in Singen will be the job of the so-called state police Police Criminal Directorate, based in Rottweil. They have specialists in investigating police officers. The body accepted the assignment two days after the Tiziano family filed their complaint. Police spokesman Uwe Vincon told DW that the suspects intended to testify in the investigation.
‘Mulo’ to pick him up from the ‘police bunker’
The state section of the German Sinti and Rome Association, which lobbies for the rights of ethnic groups in Germany, published the case for the family. The family asked for their help over the weekend, group leader Daniel Strauss explained.
“If you told me something like this was possible in Germany, I would say: not possible,” Strauss told DW.
Daniel Strauss runs the Baden-Württemberg branch of the Association for Sinti Germany and Rome
The boy’s hands were tied behind his back and placed in the police car under physical pressure and force, Strauss said. He added that Tiziano looked a little younger than 11 years, not older; he was intimidated and could barely speak. Strauss said he discussed at length what happened with Tiziano and the other children and his family via video chat. His organization also considers itself to be a provider of advice to victims of persecution and discrimination.
Tiziano is still suffering from complications from a broken rib in a road traffic accident last year and has asthma. According to Strauss, when he complained to the officer and asked to call his mother, he was told to “cover your face”.
One of the officers then allegedly spoke to him in broken Romani, threatening that the boy had to spend the night in a “police bunker”. There, “Mulo” [the spirit of the dead in Romani tradition — editor’s note] will come and catch it. Strauss said this was another clear example of his treatment and his ethnic background being linked.
When Tiziano’s mother called the police station to look for her son, she said she was told he wasn’t there. On subsequent calls, he was asked how many times he needed to be notified before the line dropped. She wanted to say that when under stress she might need her asthma inhaler.
The 11-year-old told his family that “a commissioner” – perhaps simply referring to a more senior plainclothes officer – had said his handcuffs had to be removed.
Daimagüler family lawyer said: “It shows that there was an officer at the police station who saw that there was a problem and responded accordingly.”
After about half an hour, at dusk, Tiziano was released and sent home. His lawyer said that on his way home, he crossed the same main road where a car hit him last year.
‘Alarm bells’ if child is held without parental notification
Are police allowed to bring children in for interrogation without notifying their parents? The local prosecutor’s office in Konstanz said they could not provide a comprehensive answer to that question. It will depend on questions about need, proportionality, and whether it is done for the safety of the child or others.
But for Daimagüler’s attorney: “Take a child to the station in handcuffs – all the alarms must sound there. The first thing to do is to call their parents.”
Even when the police were talking to Tiziano and his friends, his parents said they tried to reach him by phone, eight times. The police are accused of not allowing the children to answer.
“Why are parents not allowed to know that the police are interrogating their children,” asked Daimagüller, saying it was the “gruesome” kind of case he expected to hear about police involvement in the US state, but not in Germany.
A recent case involving a girl in Rochester, New York, handcuffed and sprayed with pepper drew international attention
Second case from the same city in a year
The Tiziano family is a member of the recognized minority German Sinti, a Romani tribe. They have a history spanning at least six centuries in what is now Germany, and faced persecution, expulsion, and extermination during the Nazi regime. Daniel Strauss, from the organization that represents the ethnic group, said Tiziano’s ancestors also faced such persecution. The history of the persecution in Singen was recently explored by a committee, with the desire of the local community to investigate this history. Discrimination against Roma remains rife in much of Europe today.
“This is the third case of police violence in Baden-Württemberg against Sinti and Rome which landed on my desk in nine months,” said lawyer Daimagüler. Another case in Singen plus one not far from Freiburg has sometimes involved serious physical injuries, he said. Daniel Strauss said that since Tiziano’s family made his report, he had received reports from more Sinti families about attacks by individual police officers.
Strauss also wrote a letter to the state interior minister in Stuttgart demanding an investigation. Baden-Württemberg in 2013 agreed to an agreement between the state government and minority Sinti and Rome designed to protect their rights. Representatives from both sides meet regularly. “No other German state has a further set of protections for the Sinti and Roma minorities,” Strauss said.
Even so, he added an important warning: “We have never experienced that a police officer was legally called upon to take responsibility for potential bad behavior.” Strauss suspected that this could be changed. “There is nothing to justify the alleged behavior of these officers. It violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, European Union law and German law.”
Daimagüler also raised international legal obligations when filing charges on behalf of the family. He noted that the sentence rate in cases of suspected police violence was as low as 1%, with experience showing that litigants find it difficult to adequately prove their case. But the Singen case took place near a pair of high-rise apartment blocks, which means lawyers are hoping to find other witnesses.
The family’s public statement was issued via the German and Rome Sinti Association: “This is a police attack on a child, on 11 year old Sinto! We are a family and are affected psychologically. The handcuffs leave marks on my son. Our hands. We will stand and raise our voices. “
This article was translated from German.