Failure to provide justice to Roma in the Czech Republic
10 April 2001
On February 22, 2001, the District Court of Bruntál returned a second verdict in the Emilie Žigová case, acquitting all three defendants, Mr R.B., Mr J.B., and Mr J.B. The three men had been charged with a firebomb attack on the residence of a Romani woman named Ms Emilie Žigová, her husband Mr Milan Kováč and their family, on January 17, 1998, in the northern Moravian town of Krnov. A bottle containing burning flammable liquid was thrown by unknown perpetrators into a flat in which five people, all Roma, were present. Ms Žigová sustained life-threatening burns that have required extensive on-going medical treatment, and one man was also injured. The fire also caused damage worth around 100,000 Czech crowns to the property (approximately 2890 euros).
Twice in February 1996, firebombs were reportedly thrown at property of Roma in Krnov, including a flat in which Mr Kováč was resident. In these cases, no explosion resulted and no serious damage or injuries were caused. On January 17, 1998, a firebomb attack on the property of Ms Žigová and Mr Kováč took place, but this time resulted in severe injuries to Ms Žigová. She suffered intense burns and was close to death for several weeks. She remains today in constant pain. In connection with the 1998 attack, three men, Mr J.B., Mr R.B. and Mr J.B., who are now aged 20, 20, and 17 respectively, were charged with endangering public safety under Penal Code Article 179(1); violence against a group or individual under Penal Code Article 196(2); racially motivated intentional bodily harm under Penal Code Article 222(1) and 222(2)(b); and racially motivated damage to property under Penal Code article 257(2)(b). It was only following this attack, in which someone was seriously injured, that anyone was indicted for the attacks in February 1996. Seven men were subsequently charged with offences related to the two 1996 attacks and they were joined to form one legal case. However, as of April 5, 2001, five years after the incidents themselves, the case has not yet come to trial.
In the case of the January 1998 attack, Czech authorities have also to date failed to provide any legal remedy whatsoever. The Bruntál District Court acquitted all three defendants of all charges in December 1999. The Regional Appeal Court in Ostrava annulled the verdict in May 2000 and sent the case back for re-trial. However, on February 22, 2001, all three men were again cleared of all charges in the second decision of the District Court. The presiding judge stated in his verdict that while it was proven that the defendants had clear links to neo-Nazi groups, there was no concrete evidence linking them to the specific attack in question.According to ERRC observers, the court’s failure to convict has its roots in numerous inadequacies in the investigation.
In another failure of the Czech justice system to deliver justice for Romani victims, the ERRC was informed on December 7, 2000, by a police spokesman in the eastern Bohemian town of Náchod that the investigation into a man accused of taking part in an attack on Roma has been passed to municipal authorities to be dealt with as a summary offence. Mr J.K. was accused of rioting for his part in an attack involving fifteen skinheads on five Roma and a non-Romani group of friends drinking in a bar in the town at lunchtime on February 5, 2000. All six men were viciously beaten during an attack in which skinheads shouted racist remarks such as “black swine”. Although the police were called to the scene before the attackers had left, only Mr J.K. was ever formally identified and investigated by the police. On February 29, 2000, the police informed the ERRC that the attack was merely a pub brawl. Investigating authorities have continued to deny any racial motive in the attack.
In another example of Czech authorities failing to treat racially motivated attacks with the seriousness they merit, on November 22, 2000, the District Court of the West Moravian town of Třebíč returned a guilty verdict in the so-called Dvorek case. On August 27, 1999, a mob attacked Romani families living on a small farm in the settlement of Dvorek u Ohraženice in the Třebíč district of southern Moravia, breaking windows, breaking down doors, damaging vehicles and throwing stones and bricks, and shouting racist epithets. Two people were physically injured in the attack, property was damaged and children were traumatised (see: Attack on Romani community in the Czech Republic). However, the eleven young men, aged between 16 and 24, and Mr Vlastimil Veleba, the owner of the farm, who had allegedly incited the young men to violence, were only given suspended sentences of between four months and two years. All of the defendants had been charged with racially motivated violence, damage to property and rioting and were found guilty of all charges, although sentences varied according to the degree of responsibility the court felt each of the indicted men held. The two longest sentences were handed down with respect to Mr Veleba and his son, also of the same name. However, the judge stated in court that the youth of the defendants and the fact that they had voluntarily paid some compensation justified the much reduced sentences handed down. The trial lasted only three days and the attorney for the victims, Ms Alena Novotná, told the ERRC that in her opinion the court had paid insufficient attention to the racial background of the attack. The victims have alleged that the attackers shouted racist abuse during their assault, such as “Gypsies to the gas”. Ms Novotná appealed the verdict. However, on March 5, 2001, the Regional Court in Brno rejected the appeal and referred Ms Novotná to the civil courts for the compensation claim. Ms Novotná has informed the ERRC that she has requested 99,000 Czech crowns (approximately 2860 euros) on behalf of her clients in civil proceedings. Some of those found guilty have voluntarily paid some compensation, amounting to a total of 14,324 Crowns (approximately 410 euros). Neither the owner nor his son have contributed.
The denial of justice in these cases raises — not for the first time — the issue of racist prejudice potentially infecting the Czech criminal justice system. The ERRC urges that public inquiry into the role racism and discrimination plays at all levels of the criminal justice system be swiftly undertaken, and that concrete measures to combat racial discrimination be proposed, in accordance with the Czech Republic’s international commitments. On November 8, 2000, the European Union issued the latest “Report on Progress Towards Accession by each of the Candidate Countries”, which includes similar recommendations to Czech authorities. The report concludes, “As regards the overall situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, further efforts are needed, in particular to combat anti-Roma prejudice and to strengthen the protection provided by the police and the courts. Estimated Roma unemployment remains very high at 70-90 %. Health and housing conditions are still much worse in the Roma communities than amongst the general population. Attitudes at local level are largely unaltered, as illustrated by some recent district court judgements. The Inter-Ministerial Roma Commission still has no budget to implement policies, no executive power and few permanent staff.” Further information on the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic is available at the ERRC website at: www.errc.org.
(ERRC, Pravo, Mladá Fronta Dnes)