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Christopher H. Smith: Racial Intolerance in the Czech Republic

On May 22, 1998, Congressman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, made these remarks on the subject of "Racial Intolerance in the Czech Republic" in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Mr. Speaker, I rise today to express my profound alarm at the futher deterioration of the situation for minorities in the Czech Republic. Since the Velvet Revolution, that country has witnessed violent and sometimes deadly attacks against minorities--a pattern of violence which is not being addressed by the Czech Government.

"Let me describe the most recent examples of this unchecked wave of brutality. On May 7, an Algerian in a Prague subway station was stabbed by skinheads; the next day, two Indians were also attacked by skinheads in a subway station in Prague. On the night of May 16-17, a Rom was beaten by skinheads and left on a road, where he was subsequently hit and killed by a truck. And last week, local officials in two different Czech cities--Pilsen and Usti nad Labem--announced plans to build ghettos. In Usti nad Labem, authorities stated outright that they plan to build a 15-foot-high wall around Roma apartment buildings. Pilsen officials described their walled-off area as a place for putting `undesirables,' using terminology reminiscent of that used by the Nazis. Former Czech Minister of Interior Jan Ruml has described these plans as `inadmissible in a democratic society.'

"Unfortunately, these were not isolated events. Last November, Sudanese student Hassan Elamin Aldelradi was killed by a skinhead in Prague. In January, a Romani woman was seriously injured in Krnov when her home was fire bombed. In February, another Romani woman, Helena Bihariova was attacked, beaten, forced into the Elbe River and drowned. In early March, two Romani men in Decin were assaulted by a man with a pistol; a Congolese doctor was subsequently beaten in the town of Prostejov. In late March, skinheads in Trutnov attacked a Jewish couple. Each and every one of these has been widely described as a racially motivated attack.

"Apparently, skinheads are not convinced they will be held accountable for their acts and the Czech Government has failed to persuade Roma that authorities will do all in their power to protect them. Roma have increasingly shown their unwillingness to simply stand aside while their family members are attacked or murdered, one by one. A number of recent attacks against Roma have been followed by revenge attacks by Roma. The rule of law appears to be degenerating into the rule of the mob. Official statements like that made March 17 by the current Minister of Interior, Cyril Svoboda, exacerbate the charged atmosphere. Mr. Svoboda minimized the significance of racially motivated violence, claimed it is not destabilizing and then blamed non-governmental organizations for distorting the Czech Republic's image through their reporting on this problem.

"The most recent revenge attack by Roma occurred in the town of Novy Bor two weeks ago, when two Roma attacked Miroslav Sladek, a member of parliament campaigning for re-election. Sladek is the notorious head of the Czech `Republican Party' who has called for making one's ethnic identity as a Rom a criminal act.

"A fair amount of media attention has been given to the fact that the two Roma arrested in that case were immediately pardoned by President Havel. Understandably, President Havel's decision has been controversial. What I think is most interesting is his reasoning: according to the President's spokesperson, the President did not believe that the local police could conduct an impartial investigation into the matter. She noted, in particular, that the police have given an account of events which match that of Mr. Sladek's, but which is contradicted by other eyewitnesses. She also observed that human rights groups have reported a consistent failure of the police in that area to investigate and prosecute successfully racially motivated attacks against Roma.

"On May 14, the Czech Chamber of Deputies weighed in on this serious matter and expressed concern about the attack on Sladek. They even called for the Ministry of Interior to investigate the attack further to determine if it was a planned attack. Certainly, violence should not have been used against Sladek. As repugnant and disgusting as Sladek's views might be, he is entitled to them. What I do not understand is why the Czech Chamber of Deputies--which has remained silent when Roma have been attacked and even murdered--has chosen to express its concern in this manner. The bulk of the Czech cabinet has remained conspicuously silent regarding the most recent racially motivated skinhead attacks; certainly, the Prime Minister appears to have said nothing. Instead, Monika Horakova, a Romani representative on the recently created Inter-Ministerial Commission for Romani Affairs, has been dispatched to dissuade Roma from taking matters into their own hands. In the end, however, Ms. Horakova is unlikely to be successful unless she has the full backing of the full cabinet.

"Mr. Speaker, the Czech Government should not wait until after the June elections to reach to racially motivated violence. With time, more innocent life could be lost. Every member of the Cabinet should condemn in decisive terms the acts of these repugnant skinheads; the Ministry of Interior, in particular, should unequivocally signal its commitment to ensure that the perpetrators of these acts are caught, prosecuted and convicted. And the discriminatory Czech citizenship law, which continues to telegraph the message that Roma are not wanted in that country, must be amended."

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