3 September 2007
Little known outside Romani communities, local judges gain respect for mediating disputes and preventing crime.
BUCHAREST, Romania | It began as a disagreement between two young men over who was the most powerful in the southern town of Tirgu-Jiu, and ended in a mortal fight.
Today, Marcel Tilica is serving a 17-year prison sentence for the 2005 murder of Romica Vasile, 28. But his punishment did not end in the Romanian court system. Tilica also had to face justice before a Romani judge, who served as a mediator between the two families. In the end, Tilica agreed to pay for the funeral costs and, once he is freed from prison, to do for the rest of his life all the work that the dead man would have done for his family.
The arrangement was worked out by Marin Constantin, a 77-year-old Romani judge who has a reputation for using community courts – known as kris – to resolve disputes and ease tension among Roma.
The courts seek to maintain harmony and understanding in the often poor and marginalized Romani communities. “We don’t send people to prison,” says Aurel Munteanu, a judge from the western town of Ciopeia. “We ask the guilty to pay tribunal fees, depending on the gravity
of their acts. Apart from this, we lambaste the guilty [and tell them] not to forget their act in this and next lives, which is more important than the fees.”
Munteanu, 69, says he has heard more than 1,000 cases of divorce, rape, inheritance disputes, and murders over the past 40 years.
The elected judges are typically educated elders who are respected in their community and have good relations with the non-Roma. Future judges are trained as apprentices with the elders before they present themselves as candidates.
The judges have a high-profile role because there are so few Roma represented in civilian justice systems. A report on Roma rights in the European Union, published in 2006 by the London-based Minority Rights Group International, says there are often no Romani judges
or court administrators in national judicial systems.
“It’s amazing how Roma judges are listened to by their people,” said police inspector Viorel Caragea in Gorj County, where Tirgu-Jiu is located. Until recently, the Romani justice system did not get much publicity, partly because of its tradition of secrecy. But Romanian authorities today are turning to the Romani judges as mediators in conflicts and as aides in law enforcement. Authorities credit the Romani system with reducing offences among the Roma,
and with working in close cooperation with the Romanian police.
“Without the Roma judges, there is a communication barrier,” Caragea says.
Following more than 600 years of difficult existence in Europe, the Roma’s home-grown justice is deeply-rooted in their tradition and bears trademarks of the culture. Roma swear to tell the truth holding a cross rather than a Bible, and in some cultures, parties take an oath touching pork meat.
“Romani courts represent for Romani people all over world a symbol of peace and stability in the family and community,” said Constantin, who has been a judge for more than 50 years. “I’m saying that the Romani court is truly important for people’s liberty because nothing is more important than freedom.”
Called “Suta” (100 in Romanian) as a sign of respect, Constantin knew about injustice from his childhood. His mother and her four children were deported by the pro-Nazi regime in Romania to Transnistria during World War II. All survived.
The Romani judges cannot issue judgments on public law, but they do handle mediations in criminal cases, such as the murder in Tirgu-Jiu, and often are called on to intervene in family disputes.
In the southwestern Romanian village of Obreja, a 19-year-old woman decided that she wanted to continue her studies rather than to accept a proposal to marry a local man. Her refusal sparked a serious conflict between the two families in a society where marriage is still arranged by parents.
Constantin talked to the young man’s family, convincing them to accept the young woman’s decision by saying that she had good reasons to refuse the offer. The judge’s work prevented the possible abduction of the women, a tradition in Romani communities when women refuse a marriage offer. She was accepted at a university in June.
In a separate case in the southwestern town of Oravita, Ionut Stancu, a 22-year-old Romani man, had been married to Izaura Radulescu for three years but had failed to pay a 10,000-euro dowry as stipulated in their prenuptial contract. Constantin and Romani judges from neighboring counties worked out a settlement that peacefully ended the marriage.
“The Romani kris is a blessing for Roma,” says Violeta Radulescu, who is Izaura’s mother. “If [Constantin] hadn’t come, these two families would have killed each other.”
Constantin calls the kris a “friendly” court where disputing parties leave in agreement, rather than having decisions meted out by justices.
Non-Roma also seek help from the kris when they run into conflicts with Roma. Grigore Dijmarescu, from the western city of Timisoara, sought mediation in a Romani court when he wanted to recoup money owed by a Roma. The mediator convinced the Roma to pay his debt.
To increase professionalism in Romania, the League of Krisinitors (Romani judges) was formed this year to gain recognition for the 400 Romani judges as mediators and peacemakers, according to league president Florin Motoi. He has worked to set up branches in all counties with concentrated Romani communities.
The league also plans to help judges exchange information, share examples of judgments, and preserve the Romani judicial tradition. The organization also intends to establish a Council of Romani Judges, which would have the power to bar people from working as krisinitors if they violate judicial principles.
Cristinela Ionescu in Hateg, Romania, and Marius Dragomir in Prague contributed to this report.