HRW – Human Rights Watch (Autor)
Although the human rights situation in the Czech Republic remained generally acceptable in 1998, there were a number of notable exceptions including state-sponsored discrimination and racially-motivated violence against Roma. Though the government took steps to dismantle a communist-era statute that forbid nomadic lifestyles, a discriminatory citizenship law remained on the books, and law enforcement authorities failed vigorously to investigate and prosecute violence against Roma. A new government was elected in the spring, led by Prime Minister Milos Zeman’s Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), marking the first transition of power since the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
In a case that drew international attention, the town of Usti Nad Labem, in northern Bohemia, passed plans to erect a four-meter-high fence separating thirty-nine Roma families from the rest of the town. The plan also called for round-the-clock police surveillance in the fenced-off area. Similar plans in the town of Plzen would have moved Roma residents of the city to portable cabins on the outskirts of the city. The cabins were to have been surrounded by a fence and put under twenty-four- hour police supervision. Under pressure from Roma rights groups and the international community the towns delayed implementation, but the plans had not been abandoned as of this writing.
Skinhead attacks against Roma and visiting African students occurred at an alarming rate during the year. The European Roma Rights Center reported that racially motivated crime increased sixfold between 1994 and 1996. Though statistics do not exist for1998, local rights groups believe that this trend continued. For example, on May 15, in the town of Orlova, four skinheads reportedly beat a forty-year-old Roma man before throwing him in the road where he was run over and killed by a truck. Law enforcement authorities charged the four men with causing grievous bodily harm with racial motivation.
Law enforcement authorities often failed to investigate or prosecute racially motivated violence and discrimination with the necessary vigor. Compounding this problem, law enforcement officials were reluctant to enforce the hate crimes statute, which provides for higher sentences than the standard criminal code provisions, although the evidence often warranted the more serious charge. In March, a district court judge in southern Moravia handed down more lenient sentences than the law proscribed to skinheads convicted of assaulting a Congolese doctor and shouting racial epithets. The judge defended his ruling on the basis of the skinheads’ later repentance for the crime.
The atmosphere of intolerance toward Roma was further exacerbated by open expressions of hate and prejudice by political leaders, as well as private groups. The chairman of the far right Republican party, Miroslav Sladek, proposed on the floor of the parliament that “gypsies should be criminally responsible from their birth on.” Several organizations openly promoted racial hatred and xenophobia, and members of minority groups were often refused service in restaurants and shops. On May 7, an appeals court overturned the conviction of a bar owner who had been charged with refusing to serve Roma, finding no evidence of a pattern of discrimination.
The government made positive moves toward protecting the rights of Roma on March 4, when the Senate repealed the “Traveling Proscription Act of 1958,” a law that forbade nomadic lifestyles. However, a discriminatory citizenship law that mainly affected Roma was not amended as had been recommended by rights groups, international organizations, and members of the Czech government. The law, which was established after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, demanded that Roma, whose families had lived in the Czech Republic for generations, prove permanent residency and have a clean criminal record for five years. Under the law, many Roma were denied citizenship and were classified as aliens. As such, they were deprived of voting rights and social benefits and, if convicted of even petty crimes, could be expelled from the Czech Republic. In May, the district court of Teplice ordered that Milan Sivak—a Roma man born in the Czech city of Pardubice and who was convicted of numerous crimes—be expelled to Slovakia even though he had been granted Czech citizenship in February. Though the law was amended in 1996, several discriminatory clauses remained. Poor notification of individual rights under the law and uneven enforcement of its provisions on a local level compounded its effect on the Roma community. The government failed to amend the law — as urged by a special federal commission in its October 1997 report — to grant citizenship to those who resided in the Czech Republic when it split from Slovakia on January 1, 1993. The ruling Social Democratic party (CSSD) campaigned in the 1998 general election on a platform to amend the law but it has made no proposals to do so as of this writing.
Human rights and Roma rights groups brought to national and international attention the situation of Czech Roma and worked hard to end discriminatory practices. The Czech Helsinki Committee continued to help victims of the discriminatory citizenship law through its Citizenship Counseling Centre. Human Rights Watch was aware of no attempts by the Czech government to impede the monitoring of human rights in 1998.
The Czech Republic’s policies toward Roma drew widespread international concern in 1998, especially as negotiations began over accession to the European Union. The E.U. demanded in its Accession Partnership with the Czech Republic that the treatment of the Roma minority, especially with regard to the citizenship law, be resolved.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited systemic problems for Roma with regard to access to education, employment, and social services in its concluding observations on the Czech Republic in March.
The U.S. representative to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe voiced strong concern over the citizenship law during 1998 and encouraged the Czech government to amend the law’s discriminatory provisions. The U.S. budgeted an estimated U.S.$12.2 million in assistance to the Czech Republic for 1998, the majority of which was slated to finance upgraded military equipment and military training in anticipation of the Czech Republic’s accession to NATO. Human rights organizations expressed concern that this upgrading would leave the Czech Republic with obsolete weapons that might then be sold to abusive regimes in other parts of the world.