The Girl Without A Country: Leonarda's Story

After being arrested by French police during a school field trip, then deported with her family to Kosovo, 15-year-old Leonarda has become a symbol of Roma everywhere.

Leonarda Dibrani, "lawyer" of the Roma
Leonarda Dibrani, "lawyer" of the Roma
Alain Salles and Soren Seelow

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA — Three rusty children’s bicycles lean against the wall of the reception center for asylum seekers in Levier, in eastern France. In this peaceful village just a few kilometers from Switzerland that is surrounded by fir tree hills, inhabitants travel back-and-forth across the border every day.

On the second floor of this building, stores are closed. In the apartment, the refrigerator door is open, and an accordion lies unfolded on the floor, next to a headless doll. The Dibrani family is gone from this home, forced to fly to Kosovo.

Kosovska Mitrovica is another border town. This city, located in northern Kosovo, is split in half. This side is the Albanian zone. The Serbian area starts on the other side of the bridge, where the parties close to Belgrade control everything. The Roma Dibrani family that was recently deported from Levier to Kosovo is also cut in half: between Kosovo, which is unknown to the children, and France, where they are unwanted.

The father, the mother and the seven brothers and sisters live in a small house let by the Mitrovica city council, near the town center. “It’s easy to find, there’s lots of journalists,” Maria, the elder sister, had warned over the phone. Local cameramen are settled outside the entrance. In the garden, a recently cut pile of wood suggests the cold season is around the corner. On the second floor, journalists are pouring into the room where the Dibrani family is waiting for questions.

Leonarda, the 15-year-old whose arrest by French police during a school field trip earlier this month put a face on the hidden drama of the Roma, is busy answering questions, one after another. Her father, Resat Dibrani, is rummaging through his judicial and administrative documents. He shows his birth certificate, which he just obtained from the Mitrovica city council. He was born in 1967, son of Ibrahim and Meduze, both from this town. He is the family’s only real Kosovan.

A mixed history

This seemingly simple story actually hides a very real administrative imbroglio. Unlike what Resat Dibrani said and what the French documents say, the mother, Gemilja, is not Kosovan. She claims she was born in 1973 in Italy, near Rome. Her father came from a Roma community in southern Kosovo. They claim that all but one of their children were also born in Italy — including Leonarda. Only their 18-month-old daughter was born in France, they say. Kosovan Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi has asked the Italian authorities for their birth certificates.

Resat Dibrani admits that he lied when he arrived in France in 2009, after having spent several years in Italy, where he was jobless. “France accepted lots of Bosnians and Romanians, so I thought we’d have better chances of getting papers if we said we all came from Kosovo. I know several people who did the same thing,” he explains.

He adds that he “bought a fake marriage contract for 50 euros in Paris.” That revelation has disappointed the family’s French friends. “I find it unacceptable that they could lie to me like that,” says Gérard Guignot, who helped them in the process. Then he calms a bit, saying, “They were trying to protect themselves.”

“This grey area, it’s part of their story,” explains Claire Langanné, Leonarda and Maria’s French teacher. “There are always lies. It’s their way of defending themselves.” Their lawyer, Brigitte Bertin, characterizes their story as appallingly common. “It’s just everyday life for lots of Romas who leave a country for another, hoping for a better life. False declarations of identity are not rare,” she says.

The fake marriage certificate and the alleged Kosovan identity did not move the French administration and judges. The asylum application was weak. A non-translated letter, typed texts without any signature, and a curious certificate signed by “the President of the Kosovska Mitrovica Romas” proved woefully insufficient in the end. Their asylum requests were denied, and the first letter notifying the family of their Obligation to Leave French Territory was sent in April 2011.

Dashed hopes

When he heard about the French government’s 2012 Valls Memorandum, which allows migrants who have been in France for five years to stay, Resat thought he had finally found a lifeline. “I told the children to hold on some more,” he says. The family would have been in France for five years this January. But during an administrative interview with his wife Gemilja in March, “It was found that she had absolutely no knowledge in the French language.” The administration therefore concluded: “She does not show any effort to become integrated in the French society.” So the request was denied.

The mother speaks Italian and Serbian, but her French is very poor. The father reads it and speaks it, although sometimes several languages seem to compete for his voice. He is also fluent in Italian, Serbian and Albanian. But the children speak French.

Resat Dibrani was detained by the police in August in Mulhouse, a city close to the German border. He was placed in a detention center because, according to the authorities, he presented a flight risk. The questioning was quite brutal, apparently. He says the police insulted him as his hands were bound with a rope. On the removal order that he shows us, it describes him as Serbian. On Oct. 8, he had no other choice than to take a plane to Pristina, Kosovo.

The next morning, the police arrived at the family’s house at 6:30 a.m. The children were awakened, and had only a little time to gather a few clothes, toys and game consoles before leaving for the Saint-Exupéry airport in Lyon. Leonarda was not home that morning because she had spent the night at a classmate’s to be sure to arrive at 7 a.m. outside her school in Pontarlier, where a bus would be waiting to take the children to Sochaux as part of a field trip.

On their way to Sochaux, her phone rang. She got up, went up to her teacher at the front of the bus and handed over her phone. “It’s my mother.” But at the other end of the line, in fact, was a border police officer. The teacher was told that Leonarda’s trip would end here. She would be sent to a country where she has never set foot.

A new, but not better, life

One week later, the teenager was thinking about her friends, who told her that the field trip — visiting Peugeot factories — was sad without her. “And I had studied well to prepare for this visit,” she says angrily. She talks about the long road to the airport, where she joined her family for this forced first flight. No one in the family had ever flown before. They met up with their father when they arrived in Pristina.

Bajram Rexhepi, the Kosova Interior Minister, took charge of them and found them a comfortable apartment, big enough to welcome the large family. The furniture is basic but the covers on the numerous sofas — which are also used as beds — and the carpets everywhere keep in the heat. There is a lit fire in the large stove in the middle of the main room.

At the center of all the media attention is, of course, Leonarda. The teenager who used to write poems, likes interviews and is clearly comfortable being in the spotlight. Her boyfriend has sent her texts because he saw her on TV. She laughs, saying she has “become a star.”

What is less amusing is addressing accusations about her father, who it seems may have hit her, her mother and her sister. “When I was told about that, I threw my phone on the floor,” she sighs. But in fact, the girls and their mother did file such a complaint, and then withdrew it.

Leonarda had declared that she had been physically ill-treated twice. Now, the teenager avoids the question. As for the father, he attempts an explanation: “I slapped my wife because she tried to speak for me. I’m the head of the family,” he says. But he swears he has never hit his children. He barely admits there were tensions between him and his daughters, which were rapidly appeased.

Today, everyone sticks with this man, who has had several jobs, from waiter to marketplace seller to bus driver between Croatia and Italy. In this country that is not theirs and where the children do not speak the language, there are other priorities. Leonarda finds it difficult to see how she will go to school in Kosovo.

In France, her French teacher Claire Langanné is disheartened. “Leonarda and Maria will lose everything that we built together during four years. When they arrived, their writing was very poor. We could tell they had never been to school. I’ve known lots of Roma children. I can assure you the attachment that these two have developed with the school and the teaching staff is very uncommon. School has become part of their universe,” she says.

It is one of the paradoxes of this case. Leonarda apparently felt integrated in the very country that rejected her and now fears not being able to find her place in this country that is not hers. French President Francois Hollande has, since her deportation, intervened and said that she could return to France to continue her studies, but without the rest of her family.

“I wanted to come to Kosovo after we got our documents to see my grandmother’s grave that my father often told me about,” she explains. They have not yet gone. “With my father, we went to see her old house, not far from here. He was in tears. The house is completely destroyed.”

Today, she fears seeing her dreams of a bright future disappearing. She has, however, displayed a skill for public speaking and a strong media presence that prove she is well-suited for the job she has dreamed about since age five: being a lawyer. One might say that's she already become a new European public advocate of the Roma people.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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