Muhammad and the mountain of hatred

Muhammad is a guy with glasses on his nose and grey hair around his temples. He lives in Orhei now, but works as a taxi driver in Chișinău, after staying at home for half a year. He changed his career during the pandemic, when restaurants were under pandemic restrictions. “I’m a driver, I can drive.”

He moved permanently to live in the Republic of Moldova in 2014. He had previously lived here, studying medicine at ULIM, but returned home to Syria. There, he managed to practice only for a few years, until a bomb attack turned the parental home in the town of Idlib into a heap of ruins.

Then, all the 14 children of the Abobakar family – seven girls and seven boys- got scattered around the world: Germany, Saudi Arabia, Norway … Among them, Muhammad, as well. He chose Moldova.

“It is a very beautiful country and I’ve known it since my student days. I like the people. The people are very religious and kind.  Especially when it comes to racism. In Ukraine, the situation is much worse. In Russia, there are cases where they simply beat people for their skin colour or appearance. There is no such thing here”, Muhammad explains his choice.

A year later, during the Festivities of the patron saint of Chișinău, he met his future wife, Anastasia. He loves her “from A to Z”, as he likes to say. In turn, she was captivated by his sincerity. “He told me everything from the beginning: that he was divorced, that he had two children, that he no longer had anything in Syria. Rarely can you meet such people. That’s what I liked.”

Anastasia says she didn’t need any time to adjust to the Syrian religion and traditions, because she was used to wearing hijabs and long dresses already since her teenage years. Her stepfather is also Syrian and he came to Orhei to do business. “I often went to Syria to my grandmother. All these were not new to me.”  

On September 30, 2016, when Anastasia was pregnant with their first girl, Muhammad first ran into what the law calls “incitement to discrimination” and “racial segregation”. “Us – refugees, foreign students – try not to exaggerate. We hush it up, so that these problems do not get worse, but, on that day, the situation got out of control”, Muhammad remembers.

On that Friday, in the kebab shop that he was managing near the Republican Hospital, a man entered 5 minutes before closing and ordered two kebabs. “We thought it would be nice to serve him. I asked the boys in the kitchen to cook for him.”

When the order was ready, Muhammad asked for the payment – 100 Lei. This infuriated the late client, who pulled out an ID with the Moldovan flag in a corner, as far as Muhammad remembers, and shoved it in his face. He warned that he was working at Pretura sect. Centru and threatened to close the place down, insisting that Muhammad was a foreign national and must obey the orders of the natives.

“I told him I would not give him a kebab without the pay, that his ID doesn’t mean money. I didn’t know who he was, where he was from, what he represented”, Muhammad says.

This annoyed the client even more, and he went on to swear about his skin colour and race. Muhammad’s colleagues told him not to take the scandalous client seriously and leave him to his fate, but the man did not want to give up. “If he asked for a kebab – he has to pay!”

The scandal took on new proportions when the insults started targeting Syrians’ wives. The women were sitting at a table waiting for their husbands to finish their day’s work. “He picked on us that we were wearing hijabs and why we were doing that. The other employees intervened as well and told the man to leave the women alone, because things would get ugly”, Anastasia remembers.

At one point, the customer reached for the cash desk, which alerted Muhammad.

“I did not understand what he wanted to do. I just pushed him so he wouldn’t damage anything. [And then] He went crazy: You … hit me!?”.

They both called for help. Muhammad pressed the alarm button for the security guards to come. The man got on the phone and called the police. 

Arriving at the police station, the employee of Pretura Centru, whom the law enforcement officers were familiarly addressing with – Mihai, continued to throw various insults and threats against Muhammad, who was scared as a rabbit. He was most frightened by the thought that he might be deported, and he wondered how his wife Anastasia and the child who was just about to be born would cope. And then the idea came to him to take out his phone and start recording.

“I had to have proof.  […] I thought that if I recorded, he would stop the scandal. I just wanted to shut him up. But the opposite happened: it really excited him. […] He would yammer back and forth to me: that he would deport me, that he would order various inspections, that he would close down my restaurant, because he was the one to open them all. I was silent and just recording”, says Muhammad, smiling.

In the video recordings, it can be clearly seen and heard how the man is shouting to Muhammad: “What, you, son of a b***h, you dared to hit me!? […] Hey, who are you, heehaw, in this life? […] You came from f**k knows where. […] I’m a lawyer, m****r f****r, I work at the City Hall. […] No matter where I will find you, I’ll take your f****ng scalp! […] You don’t work anymore, you devil! Starting on Monday, I’ll take care of your question. I will be the first to come with inspections […].  You wanted war with me, you will get it!”

At one point, the man stood up and approached Mohammad, vigorously waving his hands. Eventually, a policeman pushed him further back and forced him to sit down. 

They remained at the police station for about two hours, Muhammad remembers. Then they sent them home. “Right, and I don’t understand what happened. The fact that they let us go home scared me, because I didn’t know what would happen next: they would close the restaurant down, they would deport me…”, he explains with a puzzled tone.

For a month, he felt like in a pressure cooker. The kebab house was visited by several people who were presenting various IDs and were asking all sorts of questions, verifying and applying fines. But “I could not prove the connection with what had happened,” Muhammad is lamenting now.

In desperation, he went to a centre that provides assistance to refugees. From there he was redirected to the Law Center of Advocates, where he was appointed a lawyer with experience in matters involving hatred and discrimination, Doina Ioana Străisteanu.

The lawyer would later find out that, on the evening of September 30, the policemen fined the employee of Pretura sect. Centru 200 Lei, under Art. 354 of the Contraventional CodeNot too serious hooliganism. However, because he paid it within 72 hours, he got off the hook with 100 Lei – exactly the price of the two kebabs.

“What is 100 Lei for an official? In general, what is 100 Lei for an aggressor? Nothing. You can swear at a stranger today – 100 Lei. So what? You swear again tomorrow – 100 Lei.  So what?! We filed a lawsuit against this official and demanded that he be held responsible for racial segregation and incitement to discrimination. Which we [actually] got.  Judgement that was upheld at the level of the appeal court and at the level of the review court, because he [the official] challenged the decision in all the possible courts”, says Străisteanu.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in the last five years, almost 20,000 foreign and stateless citizens have obtained the right to settle permanently or temporarily in the Republic of Moldova. Gathered together, they would form a community the size of the Comrat Municipality, according to the 2014 Census data.
Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, Romania, Italy and Israel are among the top countries of origin of immigrants. 80 percent of them came to Moldova to work, to study or to reunite with their families, according to the same NBS data. 
Officially, the „national law respects the protected characteristics in cases of discrimination, for example race, nationality, ethnic origin, language, religion, sex, opinion, political affiliation, wealth”, except that every third respondent to a a survey stated that they had, at least once, observed hostile attitudes towards themselves, caused by their immigrant status in Moldova. “The public sphere is the environment in which hostile attitudes towards foreigners most often occur”, note the authors of the survey.
“As a people, [we] must try to put ourselves in their shoes”, said Ion Bambuleac, a lawyer at the Law Center of Advocates, an institution that also provides services to migrants and asylum seekers. “We have to understand that we have a lot of compatriots abroad, where they are accepted, where they accept other cultures and other religions. We have to get over this. When you are a foreigner in a country, this is stressful for you, when you understand that society is closed towards you. And that is hard. Foreigners go through bad experiences.”


A month after the incident in which Muhammad was involved, in the middle of the presidential election campaign, a piece of false news, according to which Maia Sandu, one of the poll favourites, promised Europeans that she would accept 30 000 Syrian refugees in Moldova, has been massively picked up by some media outlets.

“This has produced a whole avalanche of news, articles, events, reactions and manipulations of the public opinion […]. The impact of the case, manifested through hate speech and the public promotion of intolerance, was discussed in international human rights fora”, shows a report by Promo-LEX.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination itself addressed this issue during the informal meetings of the session for the evaluation of the situation in Moldova, the same report states. The Committee subsequently made recommendations that directly address the issue of hate speech, in particular the obligation of the authorities to take all measures to investigate and sanction hate speech, regardless of the official capacity of the promoters of hatred.

“Politicians are often considered by a significant part of the population to be the most important people in the state. Their behaviour can enroot prejudices and build attitudes, especially regarding phenomena that are little or not known to the public. As the case of the “30,000 Syrians” showed, although the issue of refugees or immigrants is not a big issue in Moldova. Due to misinformation and exploitation of fears, including by politicians in election campaigns, intolerance towards this group has escalated”, flagged the authors of the report.

Similar conclusions were expressed by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), in its 2018 report on the Republic of Moldova, which stated that “ECRI is astonished that so few cases of hate speech have reached the courts. It notes with concern that the criminal law provisions applicable to hate speech are rarely invoked and hardly ever successfully, which in ECRI’s view, sends a strong message to the public that hate speech is not serious and can be engaged in with impunity”.

Official statistics confirm ECRI’s concern, as it suggests that hate crimes and discrimination are merely sporadic cases. According to the data provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), during January 2019 – September 2021, law enforcement officers registered 18 criminal cases initiated based on one of the eight articles of the Criminal Code that include hate crimes and discrimination. Only 3 out of these 8 cases were submitted to court. Even so, there is one more detail: “Submitted to court does not mean that they are completed with a sentence”, warns advocate Doina Ioana Străisteanu. 

At the same time, based on the sole article in the Contravention Code regarding hate that falls within the competence of the MIA (Article 54. Violations of legislation on religious groups, para. (2)Confessional intolerance manifested by acts that hinder the free exercise of a religious cult or by actions to spread religious hatred), only 2 criminal offences were recorded.

And at the Equality Council, the institution responsible for finding Violations of equality in the field of work (Art. 542), Discrimination in the field of education (Art. 651), as well as Discrimination in the access to services and goods available to the public (Art. 711), only three foreign nationals have filed complaints in the last 8 years, alleging discrimination. 

“Many of us do not want further problems, because we really run the risk of being deported. For example, after this case, the request to call [my] mother to Moldova, when the little girl was born, was not accepted. They said that she poses a threat to the national security of the Republic of Moldova. Seriously?! Moreover, many people don’t know that there are such state structures where you can resort to in order to claim your rights, or maybe they don’t trust them”, Muhammad explains.

In the last three years, Promo-LEX has identified around 2,000 cases of hate speech, incitement to discrimination or other forms of intolerance. Among them, 133 cases targeted foreigners and immigrants.
“In 2021, for the first time, a political party launched itself in the election campaign with the xenophobic message: “Moldova is in danger. We do not give the country to foreigners”. Hate speech against these groups is manifested in both political and religious contexts, and the intensification of these types of discourses is caused by both stereotypes and prejudices supported by ignorance and cultural differences, the impact of migration on people, and the political and religious rhetoric”, explains Irina Corobcenco, an expert working with Promo-LEX.


“I filed a suit against him, not to punish him, but to defend myself,” Mohammad explains. The trial lasted almost two years, during which “I lived in fear. I left that job, I went to another restaurant. I was already sick to work there, because he knew that neighbourhood well. Then he sent some Arabs to intimidate me, to force me to withdraw my application. I said: “All right, I’m not against it”, but offer me the necessary apologies in court, to admit that he was not right. He passed me the message: “You want more.”

Before the judge, the official claimed that his actions were conditioned “by the blows that were applied by two persons and by the fact that one of the kebabs was not prepared the way he had ordered it”. 

However, eventually, the Chișinău District Court ruled that Mihail Musteață was guilty of racial segregation and ordered him to pay Muhammad 5,000 Lei in compensation for non-pecuniary damage, as well as banning him from “further execution of actions of racial segregation”. 

At that time, Musteață was no longer a lawyer at Pretura sect. Center, but the main specialist in the Housing-Communal Division, where he was transfered 18 days after the kebab shop incident. And, a year later, he became main specialist in the Department of Culture, Youth and Sports, a position which he still currently holds. 

We, the journalists writing this article, called him at his work telephone number. After listening to us, he told us to call back and hung up. Afterwards, he no longer answered our calls.

“If he continues to work, respectively, the message that the public authority gives to the society is that it doesn’t matter. This is a very bad message both for the society and for the foreigners who come here with their own business or living”, says Doina Ioana Străisteanu.

Even though Muhammad won the case, he says that people in his category are afraid to go to court, also because this requires money. “Our victory is symbolic. Because, in reality, I have lost a lot – time, headaches, health. If it weren’t for the support of the law centre, I would not have accomplished anything. And I would not have been heard at the trial either”, says Muhammad.

He still faces situations where he feels pressure from Moldovans, on the grounds that he is of a different ethnicity, but he no longer reacts, because “it is useless”, he confesses. There were times when people got out of the taxi and did not want to finish the ride because he was Syrian or because he spoke Romanian poorly.

“Maybe it also has to do with the fact that my name is indicated in the order and clients can see it. Maybe it’s even better this way, that they said it upfront that they didn’t want to have me as their driver. Sometimes, the clients themselves cancel the order, when they hear that I do not speak Romanian or they hear the accent. There are people like that too.”

However, Muhammad is sure that he will never leave Moldova, because he loves Moldova. Less the drunkenness and corruption, because of which “the country suffers greatly.” Especially since he will obtain the citizenship of the Republic of Moldova in 2022. He has already started to learn Romanian and to study the Constitution, requirements that are indispensable in obtaining the citizenship.

“I now attend Romanian language courses. The only thing is that I don’t really have anyone to practice with. Nastia also speaks Russian, but I will not give up”, Muhammad tells us in an optimistic tone.

And he has big plans. “Let’s finish building the house and live here, in Orhei. I want to start a business. And I really want to bring my mother here as a guest. She hasn’t seen my children yet”, Muhammad says with a sad smile.  


Now, 5 years after the incident from the kebab shop, the lawyer Doina Ioana Străisteanu still considers that the law enforcement officers could have done Muhammad a different kind of justice, than to fine the official with 200 Lei, and the case should not have stayed there, between the walls of the police section.

For this, the police officers could have sent the case to the prosecutors, and the latter could have invoked Art. 346 of the Criminal Code – Intentional actions aimed at enforcing national, ethnic, racial or religious dissension, differentiation or disunity, a crime punishable by a fine of up to 30 thousand Lei or even imprisonment for up to 3 years.

“He [Mihail Musteață] was telling the police officers at the police section: “You should smack these devils, or I’m going to smack them, too.” That means he was inciting to hatred against a certain race. Subsequently, it had to be demonstrated that the police were of a different religion than Muhammad, because that is what inciting to enmity between two religions actually means”, Străisteanu explains her position.

But even if the case reached the prosecutors’ table, the lawyer is not sure that it would have had another fate. “All the control in the case files is in the hands of the prosecutor: they are the ones to decide whether they see a criminal offence there. Usually, in such cases, in order to get out, the prosecutors send them back on Hooliganism – Art. 354 of the Contravention Code (contraventions based on Art. 354 are examined by the police – e.n.), because it is easier than going and proving the more complicated things.”

According to the law, the institution responsible for the criminal investigation in the case of the crimes included in Art. 346 of the Criminal Code – Intentional actions aimed at enforcing national, ethnic, racial or religious dissension, differentiation or disunity, is the Prosecution Office for Combating Organised Crime and Special Cases (PCCOCS). 

Igor Demciucin, prosecutor within the PCCOCS, confirms that, since 2016 until now, only 3 cases have been investigated, under Art. 346. On the other hand, he insists that “there are certain problems with the qualification of these crimes”. Or, “Article 346 applies only to citizens dependant on their national, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation. If there are other criteria for differentiation, then Art. 346 is not applicable.”  

At the same time, Demciucin mentions that it is not within the competence of the Prosecutor’s Office to amend the legislation and to harmonise it with ECRI’s recommendations. “It is the exclusive responsibility of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova. […] No specific issues were identified, as only 3 cases were investigated by the PCCOCS. Thus, no specific conclusions and statistics can be drawn in order to identify those shortcomings”, concludes Demciucin.

At the Parliament, there is a draft law that comes to cover the gaps in the legislation on crimes and hate speech, both in the Contravention Code, as well as in the Criminal Code. However, almost 6 years  after its drafting, it hasn’t yet been voted in the final reading.

The draft law was on the agenda of the Parliament on March 6, 2020, when the MP Vasile Bolea, at that time, Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs, Appointments and Immunities, requested the transfer of its examination to another day. Bolea’s request came after, one month prior, the draft was either excluded from the agenda, or its examination was postponed for another day, based on similar reasons. 

“At the request of civil society and other stakeholders, the commission organised public debates by inviting the author itself, the Ministry of Justice. We are going to finalise the draft, to vote, to examine all the amendments and, afterwards, we will be able to examine this draft in the second reading”, Bolea explained at that meeting of March 6.

After the last postponement, the commission reserved a term of 10 days to finalise the project, as deputy Doina Gherman had warned during the same meeting. However, 651 days have passed since then until the moment of writing this article, and the draft law has no longer come to be examined in the second reading.

According to the reply received from the Committee on Legal Affairs, Appointments and Immunities of the Parliament, the completion of the draft is still “under way” and its examination in the second reading will be possible “only after it has been included by the Permanent Bureau in the draft agenda of the sitting of Parliament”. 

Nadejda Hriptievschi, a lawyer at the Centre for Legal Resources Moldova, already has some reservations about this draft law, since its original version has undergone several changes and thus a loophole was left for those who “want to further explore the key issues: here come the Syrians, here are the gays attacking us”.

“There is a problem with paragraph 2 of Art. 346 of the Criminal Code, which states that debates that incite violent actions on the grounds of prejudice will not be considered as involvement in hatred. Through this paragraph, all the efforts and this entire draft law can be put on the shelf by the criminal investigation bodies, which will say that this is part of the debates. I am very afraid of this paragraph. I hope it will be excluded. I hope there will be another debate on this draft and that it will not be adopted as it is.” 

Any person who is a victim of discrimination may lodge a complaint with the Council on the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality, in person, at the premises or through the DEPUNE O PLÂNGERE (LODGE A COMPLAINT) platform on the website

Editing – Nicolae Cușchevici

Illustrations – Diana Roșcovan