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The Situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, 1998

Newly-appointed prime minister Josef Tosovsky announced the names of the new government's ministers on December 30 of last year. The minister without portfolio and the cabinet's spokesman is the former editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Respekt, Vladimir Mlynar. He thus also took on the duties of chairman of the Council for Nationalities as well as the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Concerns of Romani Citizens.

The much-discussed vice-chairwoman of this commission, which was created by decision of the government of former prime minister Vaclav Klaus after the departure of many Roma to Great Britain last year, became psychologist Monika Horakova. At the beginning of January, the six members of the commission met at the Office of the Government and agreed on their division of the individual specialist groups. Journalist Petr Uhl terminated his membership in the commission, with the justification that Bratinka's authority had been actually taken over by Vladimir Mlynar. He didn't specify his reservations with Mlynar.

"The most relevant task is the calling of the commission. We would further like , in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior, to resolve the problems of the Roma - those that returned from Canada, England and other countries," said Monika Horakova in presenting the commission's first steps. She herself wants to look into the liquidation of the pig farm in Lety u Pisku which stands on the site of a concentration camp for Roma, a step completely supported by Mlynar.

Meeting of Educators of Romani Children in Ostrava

On January 16, a two-day meeting began in Ostrava of educators of Romani children, Romologists, and representatives of the Ministry of Education, at which was discussed the possibilities of arranging a system of elementary education from which Romani children wouldn't be excluded. One co-organizer of the meeting is also the director of the parochial elementary and nursey school Premysl Pitter in Ostrava, Helena Balabanova, whose school is attended by the majority of Romani children who would otherwise "end up" in special schools.

According to Director Balabanova, 50 to 60 percent of Romani children actually attend special schools. "Schools in the suburbs, where a lot of Roma live, need a special concept, modified to the Roma and their mentality," said Balabanova, who spoke at the conference of her practical experience in the education of Roma. At the seminar, where about twenty contributions were heard, all the participants spoke of the need for speedy changes in the system of elementary and special education so that it pulls in the most Romani students.

The participants in the conference also sent to the Minister of Education, Jan Sokol, with a request for the promised two million Czech crowns (roughly $65,000) to pay for teaching assistants in selected schools to aid in the education of Romani children. At the time of the meeting, 19 of them were already working in Czech schools in Usti nad Labem, Prague, Brno, and Ostrava, thanks to financial support from the New School and Helsinki Citizen's Assembly foundations and the PHARE program. (CTK, January 16 and 17, 1998)

Also on January 16, Minister Vladimir Mlynar came to Ostrava, to get more closely acquainted with the situation of the Ostrava Roma. He visited the Premysl Pitter parochial elementary and nursey school, and met with representatives of the Ostrava city council as well as with representatives of Romani organizations.

He said that during his visit he spoke only generally about what should be done by the state, the city, and the Romani community for the Roma who return from seeking political asylum in Canada and Great Britain and will be in dire financial straits. He also said during his vist to Ostrava that the government was preparing amendments to laws that should help to lower the high rate of unemployment among the Roma. (CTK, January 16, 1998)

Arson Attack on a Romani Family in Krnov

Fire ravaged a Romani family's one-room apartment in Krnov in the early morning hours of January 17 after unknown assailants threw a molotov cocktail into the flat. Of the five Roma sleeping in the room where the bottle landed, one of them, Emilie Zigova, suffered serious burns, and the flat sustained damages of approximately 100,000 crowns.

An hour after the arson attack, someone set fire to a foreign-made car belonging to another Roma on the other side of Krnov. The police began to search for the perpetrators and also increased patrols at the homes of Roma in the area. "If the Roma agree, we'll install wire netting or strong shutters on their windows. We'll also request money from the Ministry of the Interior for a monitoring system and police cameras placed at the most critical spots," said Krnova mayor Bedrich Marek.

"It's a good solution. But everything will be in vain if people's behavior doesn't change," said League for Human Rights in Krnov representative Josef Balaz. "We're scared, because it could be repeated at any time. This time we managed to escape, but we're afraid that next time we won't be able to get away from the flames," said Milan Kovac about the attack which cost his family their home.

Kovac had apparently already been critical of the Krnov authorities, for refusing to provide the family with a larger apartment. "They don't care about us because we're Roma. If we were white, nobody would allow us to live in such conditions. After the fire, it's now even more unbearable, because we all have to sleep on two beds," said Milan Kovac's son.

The deputy mayor of Krnov, Vladimir Vocelka, rejected the criticism, saying that the family still lives in emergency conditions because they didn't pay the town rent. The municipal administration, according to Vocelka, however, will do the most it can to help the stricken family. Krnov mayor Bedrich Marek promised that in one week he would secure for the large family a municipal flat into which they would be able to move. "Until that time, we will get them lodging in a boarding house," he said.

Josef Balaz of the Krnov League for the Human Rights of Roma added, that it also complicated the Kovacs' situation that they still had Slovak citizenship and therefore had no claim to anykind of social assistance or other state financial support. (CTK, January 19, 1998)

The Kovac's have since received state assistance, food, clothes and blankets. "We will help arrange for their citizenship and with assistance from the Red Cross we are able to provide them with an apartment," said Jiri Skrabal, the head of the Dept. of Social Affairs in the regional office at Bruntala. The Krnov Roma were shaken by the attack, and decided to help the family by taking up a collection among themselves. Journalists in Ostrava had a similar idea, and set up an account for the financial assistance of the Kovac's. (MFD, January 22, 1998)

The family concerned was visited as well by Minister Vladimir Mlynar, who came to deliver the government's financial aid on January 23. He described the attack as "cowardly and disgusting" and voiced the opinion to the Krnov town council that putting netting on their windows was not a way to protect Roma from racist attacks. "The solution is for Roma in the Czech Republic to feel just as safe as other residents," Mlynar said. He emphasized, that similar racist attacks cannot be allowed, although he admitted that the problems of racism, xenophobia, and neo-nazism can't be solved overnight. (CTK, January 23, 1998)

The police have meanwhile had little success in their pursuit of suspects in the arson attack. "We're pursuing the perpetrators intensively and we've questioned over 60 people so far," said Milan Navratil, the Bruntal police chief. The police said that for now they have no proof that would confirm the suspiscion that it was an attack motivated by racial hatred. Vladimir Mlynar called on the Krnov Roma not to take the law into their own hands. For public endangerment and violence against a group of inhabitants and individuals, the perpetrators face up to 8 years in prison. (CTK, January 20, 1998)

During his visit to Krnov, Minister Mlynar suggested that Roma also be employed with the Krnov police. "It could be helpful, because white policemen possibly have a somewhat different view of the dangers of these matters connected with racism than members of the ethnic group they deal with. I will meet about this with Interior Minister Cyril Svoboda," Mlynar said, and asked Roma to suggest to him the best candidates from their ranks for the police, so that he could deliver the list to the leadership of the Ministry of the Interior. "We (the government) are trying to look for the most ways possible how to help the Roma, though we have no miraculous solution. But the Roma have to become better organized and to speak to the state with a unified voice, so it can help them in some way," he added. (CTK, January 23, 1998)

The Krnov Roma chose from among themselves a candidate to be the officer who would help the Roma community in their meetings with city offices. According to Krnov Mayor Bedrich Marek, this assistant could begin working in the Krnov town hall within three months. "This assistant won't be an employee of the town administration, but will be payed as an employee of the state," said the mayor.

The Several Words Petition

At the end of January, the Several Words petition first emerged, in which it said that "Czech public broadcasting does not present all of our citizens and foreigners as a natural part of society." Television and radio, according to the petition, mostly indirectly invite the idea that if there is, for example, Romani representation only within the framework of segregated programs or as a problem on the news, then they don't belong in normal life anywhere other "than in the ghetto or somewhere the trouble comes from."

The signatories of the petition, among whom are Senate Chairman Petr Pithart, Deputy Pavel Dostal, sociologist Ivan Gabal, political scientist Fedor Gal, journalists and other citizens, are convinced that the public media should place its entire orientation towards the formation of a democratic society which acts with respect towards minorities and their identity. The signatories sent the text of the petition to Minister Vladimir Mlynar, the Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, and the boards of Czech Television and Czech Radio. (CTK, January 22, 1998)

The Roma Minority in the Media

At the same time, the Focus agency released the results of its public opinion survey concerning the attitude of the Czech populace towards the Roma minority. The results of the study indicated that the Czech public is satisfied with the presentation of Romani problems in the media and doesn't care for more media attention to be directed toward the Roma. Two-thirds of the population are satisfied with the space devoted to the Roma in the media, while less than a fifth of respondents hold the opposite opinion. In fact, 59 percent of those polled felt that the media don't give objective information about the Roma and that, on the contrary, they side with the Roma.

Out of those who watch Czech public television, 57 percent are satisfied with the objectivity of the information presented about Roma, while only 45 percent of those who watch NOVA, the popular private station, are satisfied. The NOVA audience primarily criticize the tendency to stereotype Roma and thus to create a negative image of them or to use them as objects of jokes. (CTK, January 22, 1998)

The Government's Program Statement

After a two-day discussion, the government of Josef Tosovsky received a vote of confidence from the Chamber of Deputies on January 28. The government came before the chamber with a program statement that (unlike that of previous cabinets) remembered to mention the Romani minority.

"The government considers the attitude of the state towards national minorities as one of the key priorities of its policy. It will especially press for a change in the approach of the majority populace towards the Roma minority, which has so far been governed by a number of hostile and xenophobic stereotypes, while also seeing to the speedy and lawful prosecution of any displays of discrimination or racism. The government also takes up the pledge of the previous cabinet to erect a dignified monument on the site of the former internment camp at Lety u Pisku." (Program Statement of the Government of the Czech Republic, January 27, 1998)

Several deputies shared their opinions on this passage with Czech Radio. Michal Prokop of the ODA (Civic Democratic Alliance) considered it important that the Roma question received space in the document comparable to other departments. "It's very difficult in five months, which is evidently what the government has left, to realize concrete steps towards becoming a multicultural society, such as, for example, societyin the United States has been tending towards for 200 years already. But I perceive it as very important and, unlike a number of my colleagues, i consider the weakest part of it all the pledge to build the monument in Lety. Admittedly, it's an important symbol, but I consider as fundamentally more important the constructing of certain attitudes toward the Roma community in the area of education, of culture. These are the things which can then change the thinking of society and it won't happen in five months."

Republican Josef Krejsa, on the other hand, was literally offended by the government's statement: "The government isn't ashamed to raise prices at the present time, but it finds the money to build a monument to gypsies. It is simply rudeness and an insult to all white citizens of this state."

The situation, reflected in the racially-tinged remark of Kresla, won't be changed by some sentences in a government statement, according to Social Democratic deputy Pavel Dostal: "For every government that comes along, the Roma question becomes its problem, because the Roma problem in substance isn't the Roma's, but our problem. Without a complex solution and the cooperation of all departments, it isn't possible to solve this problem. But now it will depend on each department. how it marks out priorities in this sense."

Romai Delegates

On January 27, participants in the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg approved a report which pointed out that members of the Roma, as well as of other minorities, in Europe have poor conditions for acquiring higher education. Generally, minorities don't receive "enabling" elementary and intermediate education and the Roma's access to higher education, according to the Council of Europe deputies, is a hindered by their economic and social situation. The Assembly called on the member countries to attempt to improve this situation. (CTK, Jan 27, 1998)

Romani delegates to the Victims of Nazism requested on Jan. 28 in a meeting with German government minister and chief of the Chancellor's Office Friedrich Bohl for analogous compensation from the German government, as that secured by the international Jewish organization from Bonn for those afflicted by the Second World War. "It's not possible to make distinctions among groups of people liquidated during the Holocaust," said the Chairman of the Central Council of German Roma, Romani Rose. According to him, there are still about 200 Roma in Germany who have never received the monthly allowance offered to Jewish victims and others who suffered from the Nazi era. Minister Bohl rejected the Roma's claims in a press statement, however, saying that the Roma, just like other people persecuted by the Nazism, received some form of compensation. (CTK, Jan. 28, 1998)

U.S. State Dept. Report

A overall favorable report on the state of human rights in the Czech Republic was made public on Jan. 30 by the U.S. State Department, which makes its observations on the state of human rights around the world regularly every year. The report for 1997 once again stated, same as in past years, that the Czech government generally respects human rights, but that widespread prejudice toward the Roma and attacks by skinheads on members of the Roma minority continue to be a problem. In spite of the reduced discriminatory impact of the law on Czech citizenship with the amendment of 1996, hundreds of Roma still remain without citizenship and they struggle with many obstacles in obtaining it.

Two to three hundred thousand Roma, said the document, suffer from poverty, violence, discrimination, illiteracy and disease. According to the report, unlike in previous years, greater attention is devoted to displays of racism and discrimination and the Czech media provides better information about the Roma than in the past as well. The report also mentioned the exodus of Roma to Canada and Great Britain, but didn't comment on it at all.

"The Americans have been repeating this for many years, but they don't see that what's lacking here is a rational, conceptual policy. Since the government does nothing at all in the questions of the Roma and racism, because it doesn't know how it should do it, it has no concept," said Martin Palous, chairman of the Czech Helsinki Committee, in reference to the U.S. State Dept. report. (LN, Feb. 4, 1998)

On Jan. 29, the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Concerns of the Roma Community met for the second time in 1998, to come to an agreement on its priorities, which it will submit to the state administration and individual ministries. The commission considers schooling and education of the Roma to be most important. The greatest problem, according to the commission, are the special-education schools, which 70 percent of Romani children attend. They get into them easily, but leave them with difficulty, stated the commission. It said that in practice, no case can be found of a Romani student managing to transfer from a special-education school to a normal school. The current system of education doesn't allow children to be educated in a satisfactory manner, and the possiblity for higher qualification closes for them there as well. The commission therefore acknowledged the great importance of preparatory classes, which could be the point of departure from the present unfair state of education of Romani children. (Zemske noviny, Jan. 30, 1998)


On February 4, police arrested three youths they believe threw a molotov cocktail into the house of a Romani family in Krnov in the second half of January. "The investigator will make a decision on the case. It's premature to talk about whether the attack had a racial motive," said Bruntal police director Milan Navratil after the arrest of the youths, the youngest of which is less under 18. He also confirmed that all three belonged to the group of people known to the police for their extreme views, though criminologists didn't rule out the possibility that motive of the attack wasn't racial intolerance, but the settling of personal accounts. (MFD, Feb. 5, 1998)

A former member of this group of skinheads was a girl who was at the time of the attack the girlfriend of Milan Kovac's son and she was living with him in that house with his family. "The reason for the attack may even have been debts, and not only to the city," admitted the police, as the family was known for dodging payments - they are ten thousand crowns behind on their rent and six members of the family claim to live on the father's invalidity pension, the adult children don't work and they have yet to gain Czech citizenship. (MFD, Feb. 3, 1998)

It took two days for the police to figure out that the youths who had been in jail for the attack on the Romani family since February 5 actually sympathized with the skinhead movement. "The racial motive of the arson attack is clear. A search of the homes of all three was made and skinhead-related materials were found - various leaflets and letters with fascist subject matter. They are in any case connected with this movement," the head of investigators in Bruntalek, Zdenek Scerba, said. One of the youths had even been under investigation by the police for a number of months for a racially-motivated offense.

The Kovac family, in the meantime, was refusing to move out of their burned out apartment into a one-room replacement, since they were still asking the town for a three-room apartment. "Their attitude is creating anti-Roma feelings among people. People have the feeling that the Kovacs are trying to exploit thir misfortune for as much as they can," said Krnov Deputy Mayor Vladimir Vocelka. People were coming to the municipal offices to complain about offering an apartment to rent dodgers while twelve hundred residents of Krnov were waiting on the list for housing. The ire of many people has turned from the arsonists to their victims. "We've heard the opinion that it seves the Roma right. There are bad feelings here," said Ester Kotlarova of the League of Peace and Human Rights of Roma, which is trying to help the Kovacs and concedes that by dictating requirements for an apartment Kovac is making people angry. (MFD, Feb. 7, 1998)

Law on Migration Cancelled

On February 4, parliamentary deputies met to cancel the law on the permanent settlement of migrating persons, as per the suggestion of the communist deputies, who considered it as "entirely dead." Communist deputy Zuzka Rujbrova said that when the law came into being its primary motivation was the attempt to coerce citizens of the Roma nationality to change their lifestyle and to persuade them to conform with the way of life of the other residents.

Republican deputy Zdenek Krampera agreed with the cancellation of this law, but at the same time he pushed for the adoption of all the legal norms of the First Republic, which, according to his explanation, very precisely designated and delineated the migration of"gypsies" and other persons. Krampera thus endorsed the adoption of a law on the survey, registration and inspection of migrating persons, for which Miroslav Vyborny of the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) labelled him a racist. Deputy Hana Orgonikova of the Social Democrats (CSSD), during the debate on the cancellation of the law, pointed out that a new law on migratory life would have to be prepared due to, for example, the provision of social support and health care, which were assessed according to a citizen's permanent residence. (CTK, Feb. 4, 1998)

Roma Graduates

The first nineteen graduates of the Romani Social Law Academy on February 6 received certificates on the completion of the re-qualification course, in which they were qualified as Romani assistants and Romani advisors. The Academy's graduates entered the course on the recommendation of the Labor Office, where they were looking for work, and they will be working in regional offices. By government decree (LINK), beginning in autumn 1997 advisory positions were created for Romani assistants, who will help Roma in their communication with officials, and so far not even a third of these positions have been filled.

The positions of Romani Assistant and Romani Advisor call for Roma who have completed technical or preparatory secondary school or and in the course they acquire a basic knowledge from the sphere of law and social policy, they perfect their Czech, and they learn to work with computers. According to Minister Vladimir Mlynar, who took place in the ceremonial conferring of diplomas, the graduates of this re-qualification course are the kind of Roma who are taking the affairs of their community into their own hands and by doing so possibly helping Czech society to become more tolerant. The greatest difficulties for the Roma in the course were in Czech language.

The heads of the regional administrations acknowledged that Romani assitants are sorely needed in their offices and the Roma hope that they will be able to aid other Roma from their positions. The Roma don't expect easy work, however. "They will find themselves between two millstones - Roma and officials. There is some terrifically difficult work ahead of them," warned Pavel Pekarek, who deals with Romani problems. (CTK, Feb. 6, 1998)

Minister Vladimir Mlynar paid a visit on February 5 to another elementary school attended mostly by Romani children. After his visit to the Premysl Pitter school in Ostrava, he chose as his second school to visit a elementary school in the Predlice section of Usti nad Labem in northern Bohemia. He greeted the director of the school, Oldrich Batatk, with the words: "Being a Rom in this country is difficult, but being a minister here is also no fun!" The school's pupils take part in a number of cultural events - they sang, for example, to great acclaim at the Ghetto Museum in Terezin (Theresienstadt). Many of them also continue on to study in preparatory or technical schools (one graduate is studying at the pedagogical secondary school and another is studying at the veterinary sec. school), which for Romani children, considering the obstacles they encounter in their schooling, is very successful. (CTK, Feb. 5, 1998)

In Lobkowitz Palace at Prague Castle on February 5, an exhibit of works by non-professional Romani artists visual artists entitled "E luma romane jakhenca - Svet ocima Romu" (The World through the Eyes of the Roma) was ceremoniously opened. The exhibition, which was put together by the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno in cooperation with Prague's National Museum, featured wooden sculptures, drawings and paintings by thirteen artists. The Romani artists mostly displayed in their works traditional Roma values, such as love for children and family, reverance for ancestors and the elderly, and in addition to this they turned back to the suffering of the Roma during the Second World War. All of the displayed works were created by men, since, said the exhibition's author, historian Jana Horvathova, they have much more time than Romani women. (CTK, Feb. 5, 1998)

As of February 9, the Fund of North Moravian Journalists, established to receive contributions to help the Kovac family from Krnov, raised 22,000 crowns. The money will be used by the family to buy furniture, a washing machine, and other household furnishings. The fund received contributions from all over the country, as well as from the Jewish Museum in Prague. (CTK, Feb. 9, 1998)

Another fire bomb ignited an apartment inhabited by Roma in Orlov na Karvinsku on February 13. The classic molotov cocktail, probably filled with gasoline, hit the floor in the kitchen, where it ignited the curtains and the carpet. The fire was put out by the residents themselves and fortunately nobody was injured. The police began an investigation of the crime as a breach of public order and damage to property. After classifying the investigation, the police ruled out a racial motive. The probable reason for the arson attack appeared to the police that someone wanted to settle some personal matters with the Romani family. (CTK, Feb. 13/ MFD, Feb. 17, 1998)

Savage Attack in Vrchlabi

A 26-year-old Roma woman was attacked and savagely beaten, kicked and thrown unconscious into the Elbe River by three young skinheads. The attacked woman probably regained consciousness in the cold water and called for help. Her cries were heard by 48-year-old passer-by Eliska Pilarova. "I was coming back from my girlfriend's and I heard a cry for help. I ran towards the river, from where two men were just leaving. From the wall I then spotted a woman in the water calling to me that she couldn't swim," said Pilarova, describing the night's tragic events. She rushed to help the drowning woman and although she was seized in the strong current of freezing water, she was able to grab hold of the other woman. "It was clear that she was at the end of her strength, but she still managed to tell me 'they threw me in'," said Pilarova, who's considered a capable swimmer. But she couldn't have reckoned on the Elbe's current being strengthened by water released after a thaw in the Krkonose mountains from the dam at Spindler's Mill. The current swept both women toward the sluice-gate, into which they were carried and separated. "After that I don't remember anything. Evidently I swam to the middle of the river towards the rocks, where I hung on and called for help." From there she was helped by someone who happened to be passing by, who called emergency rescue. Doctors at the Vrchlabi hospital, where she was taken immediately, stated that aside from the shock from the below-freezing water she also sustained numerous bruises and a cracked vertabra. (ZN, Feb. 20, 1998)

Firefighters and police searched the river bed as well as the shore until four in the morning for the young Romani woman. They didn't find her body until Monday (Feb. 16) morning, when the dam lowered the flow of water on the Elbe. Thanks to the testimony of Eliska Pilarova, police very quickly found the trio of youths who threw the woman into the river. "I saw them standing over the water and watching. Only then did they calmly walk away, and it's quite possible they were even amused over their deed," said Pilarova, and added: "If it were a matter of a certain type of sick people, then I would understand it. But the terrible thing is that they are convinced they did a good thing." (ZN, Feb. 20, 1998)

The police charged the three attackers with the crime of bodily harm in complicity committed with a racial subtext and put them in custody. Minister Vladimir Mlynar sharply condemned the attack, saying:"I only hope that it will be redefined as attempted murder." Redefinition as murder depends, according to Eastern Bohemia police spokesman Karel Matula, on the determination of the subjective side of the matter - whether the perpetrator intended to kill the person and whether all the facts indicate this. (MFD, Feb. 18, 1998, CTK, Feb. 17, 1998)

In the case of a conviction for racially-motivated murder, the accused would face an especially long prison term. The head of the Eastern Bohemia regional department of investigation, Milos Kriz, said that the police will try to bring the case to trial "before the middle of the year." "We will do everything so that the case is finished on time and the perpetrators deservedly punished," he added. (CTK, Feb. 18, 1998)

The murdered Helena Bihariova was the mother of four, the youngest being just 8 months old. She came from Opava and had lived in Vrchlabi for 8 years with her partner Karel Lakatos. Her parents learned of the death of their daughter from the television news. Her father, Jan Bihari, said his daughter had a "bad life" in Vrchlabi, as she'd been verbally as well as physically attacked many times. Helena Bihariova's family immediately saw to the transfer of her remains to Opava and Jan Bihari stated that they also wanted to raise their grandchildren in Opava. Karel Lakatos, however, didn't want to give up his children at all.

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