Czech government stirs as Roma flee the country
On October 8, 1997, visa requirements were re-imposed by Canada upon Czech citizens, following the arrival of several hundred Czech Roma who had fled there during the summer and early autumn. Shortly thereafter, British immigration authorities registered an increase in the number of Czech and Slovak Roma arriving to claim asylum in the UK. The result was a wave of inflammatory articles in the British press, and a series of offensive responses by British politicians [see pages 54-60]. In the Czech Republic, there was speculation that the United Kingdom also would reimpose visas, and questions of racism and discrimination were sent to the top of the political agenda.
On October 29, the Czech government finally accepted the Council for Nationalities’ Report on the Situation of Roma in the Czech Republic, along with its policy recommendations. The recommendations adopted by the government are aimed at twelve ministers, the heads of district offices and the mayors of Prague, Brno, Ostrava and Plzen and they include programmes which Romani organisations have advocated for a very long time. Deputy to the Minister Without Portfolio Viktor Dobal, who was responsible for the report, stated on a Czech National Radio programme that the version which was accepted by the government hardly differed from the one rejected a month earlier. The only reason, then, for the government to accept a report it had previously rejected seems to be a change in the political urgency of relations with the Romani community brought about by the Romani asylum claimants in the United Kingdom.
The government also began to implement some of the policies called for in the Council for Nationalities report. A teacher of children with mental disabilities, Mrs Albína Tancošová, was employed from the beginning of November as Romani co-ordinator at the Ministry of Education. Her job is to supervise the implementation of the report’s recommendations on education.
Then, in the early hours of Saturday, November 8, a Sudanese student named Hassan Abdelradi was stabbed to death by a skinhead in Prague. At least two skinheads chased two Sudanese students, Abdelradi and his cousin, home from a disco at approximately 2 a.m.. Abdelradi’s cousin managed to reach the college dormitory and hide on the fifth floor. When 18-year-old skinhead P K., who had followed him up the stairs, came back down again, he found Hassan Abdelradi in the corridor on the ground floor end stabbed him twice in the stomach. The student died on the spot. Shortly thereafter, P.K. was arrested and taken into custody. The Czech government was quick to respond, and expressions of shock from offices including that of the prime minister had reached the international media by the end of the day. A low-key commemorative act took place in the dormitory on Sunday night. Meanwhile, a demonstration was organised on Monday, November 10 at 3 p.m. by the mayor of Prague 3 (known as the district most sympathetic to Romani issues) and by the Dean of the Economic Faculty, also in Prague 3, where Abdelradi studied. The demonstration was attended by thousands of students, along with sympathisers and with many representatives of non-white communities in the Czech Republic. There was a large Romani presence, under various banners including that of the Romani Civic Initiative (ROI) they carried posters listing ten Roma who have died in the Czech Republic as a result of racist violence in recent years. The large square in front of the university buildings was filled to overflowing. The demonstration was a strong and welcome expression of opposition to racist violence.
The rally was addressed by the Dean of the Economic Faculty, a student from the faculty, a representative of foreign students in Prague, the Sudanese ambassador, two priests, and a series of prominent Czech politicians. A spokesman from the Ministry of Justice read out a statement by Minister Vlasta Parkanová. In general the speeches were strong and angry, repeatedly noting that the Czech police and judicial systems have been ineffective, or unwilling to prosecute racially-motivated crimes, expressing disgust at the skinhead movement, and calling on Czech society to value diversity.
On the other hand, there was almost no mention of Roma. While it is clear that this particular incident did not involve Roma, and that rhetoric of ’showing hospitality to foreign guests’ was appropriate, the speakers’ more general talk about diversity and condemnation of racism overlooked the fact that in most cases, the victims of intolerance and racist violence in the Czech Republic are Roma. A request by R01 president Emil Ščuka to address the meeting was refused by the mayor of Prague 3 for procedural reasons: applications to address the meeting apparently had to be made by 1 p.m.. Roma present reacted with anger and distrust at the way in which racist violence was being generalised away from them. At a press conference after the demonstration, there was also criticism of the inactivity or ineffectiveness of the police in combating racist violence: Stanislav Penc of the Documentation Centre for Human Rights pointed out that P.K. had been involved in a racist attack two months previously, also in Prague 3, but had not been taken into custody.
The new year began with a new interim government and Roma-related appointments. The Czech weekly Respekt reported in early January that the Czech government office had appointed 24-year-old Romani psychologist Monika Horáková from Brno to become the deputy for the Inter-departmental Committee for Affairs of the Romani Community. Ms Horáková won the position in a public competition in which 81 applicants had taken part. She told the Czech weekly Respekt that she believes that one of the causes for the tendency of Czech society toward racism is the need among non-Romani Czechs for a strictly defined way of life and the sanctioning of any deviation from it.
According to Andrej Sulitka, secretary of the Council for Nationalities, the new Interdepartmental Committee for Affairs of the Romani Community will be led by its chairman, Minister without Portfolio Vladimír Mlynář, and deputy chairman Monika Horáková. The Romani members of the Committee are Matěj Šarközi from Plzeň, Margita Lakatošová from Prague, Jan Šipoš from Chomutov, Ivan Veselý from Prague, Karel Holomek from Brno and Josef Vacuna from Ostrava. The Romani delegates in the Council for Nationalities are policeman Stanislav Danihel from Zlín, businessman Rudolf Tancos from České Budějovice and journalist Ondřej Giňa from Rokycany.
Speaking on the weekly Romani radio broadcast Romské vysílání on February 6, Minister Mlynář stated that he has three priorities vis-a-vis Roma: knocking down the pig farm which presently stands on the site of the Czech World War II concentration camp for Roma at Lety u Písku; making information about Roma a part of the Czech school curriculum; and pushing for legal changes to make employment discrimination swiftly and easily punishable. He also insisted on the need for „changing tests according to which many children are sent to special schools [schools for the mentally handicapped] just because the tests are designed for white children.”
(ERRC, Romské vysílání)