Czech walls

10 September 1998

The international community expressed concern in late spring and early summer as the domestic and international press began reporting that municipal authorities in the northern Czech city of Ústí nad Labem plan to build a wall around a primarily Romani housing settlement there.

Community relations in Ústí nad Labem degenerated when, in the afternoon of April 12 of this year, a non-Romani Czech couple hit two Romani men with their car in front of the predominantly Romani Nový Svĕt housing estate on Matiční street in Ústí nad Labem. One of the men suffered a concussion as a result of the accident. According to the police, the two Roma then pulled the driver and his wife out of their car and started beating them. Two officers from the city police department subsequently emerged from a local pub. Instead of trying to find out what had happened, they reportedly began to beat up some of the Roma present, including the one who had been injured by the car. According to independent field investigation by the ERRC, a police back-up involving several police cars and more than ten officers arrived and attacked Roma who had come out of the nearby Nový Svĕt housing estate. Police officers fired several shots in the air. Some Roma allege that they were beaten severely by police. However, the Czech media described the event as a mass attack by Roma against Czechs and police officers.

Four of the Roma involved in the incident were detained at the scene of the incident. Three of the four men detained, Mr Emil T., Mr Juraj D. and Mr Andrej D. were charged with attack and threatening a public official, disturbing public order, and racially motivated violence. The fourth person, Mr Karel R., was charged with the crimes listed above, as well as attack on a public official with a weapon. According to the charges, Mr Karel R. injured the hand of a police officer by stabbing it with a knife. Eyewitnesses, however, told the ERRC that Mr Karel R. never took a knife out of his pocket. An early press release by the police asserted that fifty Roma had attacked the policemen. The non-Romani driver of the car was not charged with any infraction in connection with the incident. Romani witnesses to the attack told the ERRC that they had not gone to the police to testify because they feared they would be charged with crimes they had never committed as it has often happened in the past three years in the Czech Lands.

Three of the men were released shortly after the incident, but Karel R. remained in custody on the grounds that since he is a resident of Slovakia, he might attempt to hide from justice. One of the released Roma told the ERRC that he had been beaten in custody.

On April 15, 1998, city police conducted a raid on the Nový Svĕt housing estate. They checked the identity papers of the inhabitants, their residence permits and rental contracts. The Czech daily Zemské Noviny quoted official sources stating that during the raid officers cut wires which illegally connected the flats of some Romani families with the electricity supply network. The police stated as well that a local restaurant had been run without license for the past year. The deputy director of the town police, Mr Ján Novotný, told Zemské Noviny, "There will be similar checks in the future." According to Zemské Noviny, local Roma considered the raid an act of revenge on the part of the police for the April 12 incident.

Romani leader Ján Vekon told the ERRC that serious trouble began approximately one week after the April 12 incident, when local and national television crews filmed and subsequently showed an inflammatory program about the settlement. According to Mr Vekon, the television program contained misinformation about the business activities of local Roma.

On May 14, Mladá Fronta Dnes reported that Ústí nad Labem city officials intended to build a four-metre high wall in early July to separate four apartment blocks (two of which are empty) in Matiční street, in the Nový Svĕt housing estate populated mainly by Roma, from the primarily non-Romani housing across the street. According to the press, Mayor Ladislav Hruška stated that on May 13 he had promised the wall to the owners of one-family houses in the same street, following their petition to local authorities for protection from the local Roma. ČTK reported that, among other problems, "Often minors or other people drive around without a driving license". According to Radio Prague, Mayor Hruška gave the Roma three months to show they could adhere to basic hygienic standards in the district, promising that if they do so, the money earmarked for the wall would be used to build facilities such as a children's playground.

The Prague Post reported that District Mayor Miroslav Harciník had dismissed claims that the wall, or "noise barrier" as he preferred to call it, was discriminatory. Harciník said residents spend their summer evenings partying late into the night. "The people who live in these two apartment blocks have a specific lifestyle that affects others who live in the area," Harciník said.

The buildings in question house, among others, a group of people who were moved into the settlement in 1994 after they failed to pay rent due on other accommodation. Although the rent in the Matiční street buildings is high, hygienic facilities are minimal. Local residents told the ERRC that their applications to be relocated are not taken seriously by local authorities. Once in Matiční street, there is no moving out.

In a statement concerning the disturbing rise of racial intolerance in the Czech Republic delivered to the US House of Representatives on May 22, Congressman Christopher Smith con-demned the plans of the Ústí nad Labem municipal authorities: "Local officials [...] announced plans to build ghettos. In Ústí nad Labem, authorities stated outright that they plan to build a 15-foot-high wall around Roma apartment buildings."

On June 2, a delegation of twenty Roma led by Mr Ondřej Giňa visited Ústí nad Labem in order to personally present Mayor Ladislav Hruška with a petition against the building of a wall on Matiční street.

The petition was sent to the president of the Czech Republic and other authorities. According to Mladá Fronta Dnes, Mayor Hruška stated that the document submitted did not fulfill the formal requirements for a petition and was nothing more than an informal complaint. He also reportedly called the visit of the Roma a "theatre" and told the delegation, "You do not know what you are talking about, otherwise you would have suggested how to solve the problem". The visit reportedly ended with a quarrel between the delegation and the mayor.

In response to the growing criticisms of his alleged intentions, Mayor Hruška sent a letter to Congressman Smith on June 3, 1998, in which he wrote that the city hall's intention was to build a wall in Matiční Street to protect residents from the noise coming from a busy road, and that all comparisons with a "ghetto" would be odious.

The ERRC interviewed the spokes-person for the town council, Mr Milan Knotek on June 22. Mr Knotek stated that no decision to build a wall had been made either by the town council or by the district council of Neštĕmice, where Nový Svĕt is located. He acknowledged, however, that in November 1997, the district council of Neštĕmice had approved a budget for 1998 which included 350,000 Czech crowns for the construction of a wall in Matiční street.

Mr Knotek was keen to emphasise that the whole scheme was still in the purely theoretical stage and that no decision on the matter had been taken. He stated that the mayor would scrap the plan to build a wall if the inhabitants of the Matiční street buildings improved their behaviour in the coming months. On August 26, the Neštĕmice district council suggested that a 1.80 meter high fence, not a wall, should be erected, which would not have an exit to the street. The spokesman of the Government, Mr Oldřich Zeman, told the ERRC that the plan to build a wall was abandoned as the "inhabitants of the street have become proper". Observers claim that this decision had more to do with the warning of the British Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Radio Prague reported that on August 25 Ambass-ador David Broucher told the Czech Foreign Ministry that Britain might introduce entry visas for Czech citizens in the event of a mass exodus of Czech Roma to the U.K.. The mayor of Neštĕmice quarter told the ERRC that the final decision of the town council would be made on September 15, 1998.

According to an article published in Mladá Fronta Dnes on May 16, municipal authorities in the western Czech city of Plzeň were also planning to build a Romani ghetto. On June 19, Plzeň Mayor Zdenĕk Prosek told the ERRC that this was not true: "There has never been a decision of the town council to build a ghetto which would be watched or guarded by police and isolated from the surroundings by a barbed-wire fence. The information circulated concerned a protocol of a city council meeting, during which one councillor - who does not represent the council - discussed such a plan. This remark in the mentioned protocol was misinterpreted in a very tendentious and prejudiced way." The municipality of Plzeň is presently creating a small housing estate of low comfort flats (holobyty) for individuals who have been chronic non-payers of rent. The Ústí nad Labem city council took a similar decision four years ago with respect to the Matiční street estate, and many observers state that this decision was a precursor to the decision to erect the Ústí wall. Suggestions to isolate Roma, drive them out of the areas where they are living, or out of the country, have been a recurring theme among both civilian and state figures in the Czech Republic since shortly after the political changes in the country in 1989.

(ČTK, ERRC, Mladá Fronta Dnes, Prague Post, Radio Prague, Zemské Noviny)


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