A 42-year-old Roma man named Stanislas Tomas died shortly after being arrested by police in the town of Telipce in the Czech Republic on June 19. Many were shocked by a video that emerged showing a police officer with his knee on Tomas’s neck, with many drawing comparisons with George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis last year in similar circumstances sparked a global protest movement against police violence and racism. The case has shone a light on anti-Roma discrimination by Czech police.
The incident took place on June 19 in the town of Telipce, located in the northwest of the Czech Republic. For five minutes and 50 seconds, a shirtless man is held down by a police officer, who is helped at times by two other officers in uniform holding down the man's legs. The officer can be seen using his knee to pin Tomas to the ground, while he struggles and cries out. However, the angle and the quality of the video make it impossible to determine if the officer is exerting pressure on Tomas’ neck or his shoulders.
In the background, you can hear the voices of residents of the apartment building at 10-18 Hriste Street.
“They are suffocating him,” a woman says.
Another man defends the police use of force, saying, “That’s their job.”
Another man shouts out advice: “Stay on the ground, don’t get up!”
Tomas died shortly thereafter in an ambulance called by police, according to police and several articles published by the Czech press.
A Czech George Floyd?
The next day, footage of the incident filmed by a resident of a nearby building began to circulate on social media. People were quick to compare this scene to George Floyd’s death: Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American man was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. During the arrest, Chauvin held Floyd to the ground, using his knee to put pressure on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. The killing, which was filmed by passersby, sparked an national protest movement against police violence and racism.
However, in Stanislas Tomas’s case, the witness's video isn’t clear enough to offer stand-alone proof that Tomas died while being restrained or, indeed, if the officer’s knee was in a similar position to that of Derek Chauvin.
In response to the uproar sparked by the video, Czech police posted their own video on June 21 of a man who appears to be Tomas. The footage shows him stumbling down the street, shirtless, and hitting a car.
“There's no Czech Floyd,” the police said in a tweet, adding that Tomas was under the influence of "psychotropic drugs" and that a court autopsy had determined that the arrest was not the cause of his death.
Our analysis determined that the video posted online by police was filmed roughly a hundred metres from where Tomas was arrested and at the same time of day. The shadows of the buildings and passersby point in the same direction, indicating it is around 3pm.
'According to witnesses, he was unconscious when the ambulance arrived'
Nevertheless, this video does document a case of police violence in the Czech Republic, as well as anti-Roma discrimination, according to Michal Miko, the director of Romanonet, a Czech NGO dedicated to protecting Roma rights.
I went to the scene of the incident on Tuesday [June 22] in an attempt to better understand what happened. I was able to speak with residents of the building – even though they are under police order not to speak to the media because an investigation is underway.
They said that 42-year-old Stanislas Tomas was unconscious when the ambulance arrived and was transported using a stretcher. They said that it was very hot that day and the asphalt was boiling [Editor’s note: It was 30 degrees Celsius at 3pm]. Because this man was under the influence, I believe there was a high risk of death from the kind of violent arrest shown in the video and I think that the police acted dangerously.
When I saw the video for the first time, I had a strong feeling of déjà vu and I immediately thought of George Floyd. Tomas is also part of a minority group that is discriminated against and targeted by police. And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Roma people lost their lives in both 2009 and 2016 under similar circumstances.
'The real question is whether or not the system has the capacity to properly investigate police abuse'
Zuzana Candigliota is a lawyer with the League of Human Rights. She believes it is too early to come to a conclusion about what exactly happened.
The Czech law doesn’t actually specify what exactly police are allowed to do during an arrest, there is simply a requirement that their response is “proportionate.” From the video, it isn’t entirely clear what happened; experts will have to take a closer look.
It is true that someone who is under the influence can be more dangerous and more difficult to calm down. Police officers even said that Tomas had bit them. Discrimination against Roma people and racial profiling are both realities in the Czech Republic, but in this case, the neighbours had called the police because of the man’s behavior.
Police have told me that they carry out more random checks on Roma people because they say, in their experience, they are more likely to find them in possession of illegal objects or things. The police also target homeless people and others on the margins of society as well as environmental activists and anarchists.
While these systemic problems are real, for me, the real question in this case is whether or not the system has the capacity to properly investigate police abuse.
We have an institution called the General Inspection of Security Forces [GIBS], which is meant to investigate cases of suspected police violence. However, this body doesn’t do its job well and isn’t impartial. They don’t examine all of the evidence, they are slow and they rule almost systematically in favour of the police. If we want to really be able to shine a light on police violence, these bodies need to be truly independent.
On Saturday, June 26, the organisation Romanonet held a protest and a memorial for Stanislas Tomas on the site where he was arrested by police.