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Czech authorities build ghetto wall, tear it down again

7 December 1999

On October 13, 1999, municipal authorities in the northern Czech city of Ústí nad Labem went ahead with plans to wall in a series of buildings inhabited predominantly by Roma. According to articles appearing in the Czech press, inhabitants of the buildings on Matiční Street were awoken at approximately four in the morning when builders arrived and began constructing a two-metre-high wall under an approximately eighty-person-strong police guard. Construction was completed by evening. One and a half months of feverish activism ensued, and on November 24, Czech authorities tore the wall down again.

Over the approximately one and a half years which have passed since city officials first announced plans to build a wall to separate Roma and non-Roma on Matiční Street in Ústí nad Labem, the international community has repeatedly indicated that such segregation stands in violation of international law, and has called upon the Czech government to annul the resolution. In March 1999, during consideration of the question under its early warning procedure, members of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced concern that the government was not doing enough to prohibit an unlawful act of racial segregation. Mr Ion Diaconu, the Committee expert serving as country rapporteur on the situation in the Czech Republic, criticised the Czech government for having decided to take legal measures only if and when the local authorities started actually to build the barrier: "The Government should have declared the decision to build the fence illegal and should have requested its annulation." More recently, according to an article appearing in the Czech weekly Respekt, European Union Envoy to the Czech Republic, Mr Ramiro Cibrian stated that should the wall be constructed, the Czech Republic could not be considered for EU membership. In a statement issued on October 7, 1999, the ERRC called on Czech authorities to halt municipal plans for construction of a wall which would cordon off a Roma "ghetto" in Ústí nad Labem. The ERRC had made a similar appeal in May 1999.

Construction of the wall originally began on October 5, when builders succeeded in constructing a series of pillars, a gate, and three sections of wall before Roma, acting peacefully, blocked further construction. On October 6, Romani activists from around the Czech Republic went to Ústí nad Labem and dismantled sections of wall. Romani activists took down the rest of the wall on October 7. Protests against the wall in Ústí and around the Czech Republic continued throughout the week.

In response to the actions of the Ústí nad Labem municipality, Prime Minister Miloš Zeman reportedly stated on October 7, "The wall in Ústí divides the Czech Republic from the European Union." However, other high ranking Czech officials downplayed the importance of the wall and, most importantly, although legally empowered to do so, Czech authorities failed entirely to act to prevent construction; Czech parliament finally annulled the original resolution by the Ústí nad Labem town council in the afternoon on October 13, the same day the wall was built.

The ERRC publicly condemned construction of the wall in a press release issued on October 14 and, in co-operation with local counsel, assisted a Romani resident of Matiční Street Ms G.L. in filing a lawsuit against the city council of Ústí nad Labem on November 12. On November 4, Romani activists from around the Czech Republic went to the wall, pitched tents, and began a week-long protest which ended on November 12. They were joined by Romani activists from Poland and Lithuania. Disparate voices also condemned construction of the wall, including the Spanish non-governmental organisation Unión Romaní; Mr Gunter Verheugen, the Commissioner responsible for European Union enlargement; British Deputy Home Secretary John Battle; Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission; Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer; and the Macedonian Romani organisation Drom. Czech President Vacláv Havel and Prime Minister Miloš Zeman also spoke out against the ghetto. On November 23, in an extra-ordinary session, the Ústí nad Labem city council resolved to remove the wall, and on November 24, builders tore it down. Observers expressed the concern that, as part of a negotiated settlement between the national government and Ústí city authorities, the government has provided a large grant to buy the houses of non-Romani residents on Matiční Street, effectively capitulating their segregational desires. The ERRC and Ms G.L. are continuing to sue for damages.

(BBC, ČTK, České noviny, ERRC, Mladá Fronta Dnes, New York Times, Respekt)

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