FECL 34 (May 1995):
The beating to death of Tibor Berkim, a 42 year old Romany father of five in front of his wife and children in his home in South Bohemia led to an emergency meeting of Prime Minister Václav Klaus with ministers and police chiefs on 16 May. After the meeting, the government announced a crackdown on racially motivated crime, but representatives of the Romany minority are showing scepticism about the government's determination.
Tibor Berkim was killed by a group of teenage supporters of the neo-nazi skinhead movement.
Romany community leaders welcomed the government's declaration of intent, "belated as it is". They said they would be watching developments closely to ensure that the government, police, prosecutors and the judiciary actually acted as promised.
The cautiousness of the Romany leaders is understandable. Indeed, Czech neo-nazi groups have all been allowed to register with the Interior Ministry, despite their commitment to promoting race hatred and fascist ideas - acts which are banned by law in the Czech Republic.
Such groups are behind the wave of racial violence which has swept the Czech Republic since the so-called "velvet revolution". According to official figures, which the government itself admits are an understatement, 160 incidents occurred last year and since then, 225 people were charged with inciting racial or national hatred. A report currently before the Czech parliament says that most of the victims were Romanies or people with dark skin mistaken for such.
After the murder of Tibor Berkim, the Justice Minister announced in a TV programme that, in future, persons convicted of racially motivated murder could be sentenced to life-time imprisonment - effectively 15 years, provided parliament voted through an amendment of the existing law.
In its turn, the Interior Ministry has said it will look again at the registrations of neo-nazi groups.
One such group, the "Bohemia Hammer Skins", has as its aim "a society based on the leadership principle and the superiority of the white race, in which there will be no place for coloured subhumans, Jews, drug addicts, political deviants, race traitors and other filth".
Police often stand by or even escort demonstrations by such groups where slogans shouted are of the type "Gypsies to the gas chambers!", "Ku Klux Klan!", and "Czech lands to the Czechs!".
Some municipal authorities have bestowed such demonstration with some "respectability". Local councils rarely ban skinhead marches, and on two occasions the local mayor addressed racist rallies and declared their support for typical neo-nazi demands such as clamping down on "Romany criminality", drug addiction, prostitution, and communism - while of course disowning the organisers' "regrettable nazi traits".
This happened in March at Mladá Boleslav, where the giant Skoda-Volkswagen car plant is located. The local mayor, Svatopluk Kvaizar, who was elected on the ticket of the right-wing Civic Democratic Alliance (a member of the Czech Republic's ruling coalition), declared his support for the political demands of a rally while distancing himself from the genocidal slogans chanted during the preceding march.
In the South Moravian town of Hodinín, mayor Dusan Grombirík addressed a crowd including 300 skinheads, supporting their opposition to drug addicts and other policy aims of the organising National Front. Forty of the NF demonstrators were arrested for possession of clubs, knives and other weapons.
The courts appear to be noticeably harder on Romanies and others who defend themselves against skinhead terror on the streets or who deal out rough justice to skinhead thugs. A well-known Czech sculptor, Pavel Opocensky, who intervened to help a victim of skinhead violence was himself attacked by the steel tube-wielding thugs. In an attempt to defend himself with a penknife, he mortally wounded one of the skinheads. Opocensky was given a three year sentence.
In another incident, skinheads were released by court, scot-free or conditionally, after having thrown a Romany boy into a river. The boy drowned. Seeking revenge, a Romany youth injured one of the skinheads with a knife. The Romany was sentenced to one year's imprisonment.
A neo-nazi rock band was similarly given a conditional discharge after being charged with stirring up racial hatred. One of the band's songs went: "Your mission is sacred, you'll beat up these swines - niggers, gypsies and yellows. Don't give them peace!".
Source: Postmark Praha, No.61, 22.5.95.
FECL 34 (May 1995):
When it comes to the growing neo-nazi violence in the Czech Republic, the Klaus government's hands are far from clean.
When Czechoslovakia split into two states in 1993, the Czech government adopted a citizenship policy which denies Czech citizenship to Czech-born Romanies who have lived there all their lives. If they are under 40 and their parents were registered as Slovak citizens, they can not obtain Czech citizenship. This discriminatory policy has been confirmed by a decision of the Czech Constitutional Court whose members are well known to be hand-picked by President Václav Havel.
It is hardly surprising then, that the Romanies can be depicted with impunity as an alien force subverting the country by their criminality, their unwillingness to work, their large families etc. Hardly surprising, either, that young men with shaven heads take the government at its word and conduct pogroms all over the Czech Republic.
The frustration of the Romany community can be seen in the comment of Ladislav Body, the only Romany in the Czech parliament, representing the left block, at the funeral of Tibor Berkim on 20 May: "Berkim had to die because he was a Romany", Body said. "The government does not care about the safety of the Romanies. So, now the Romanies are saying that since they cannot rely upon anyone they must defend themselves".
Ken Biggs (Prague)