Arson attack sparks nationwide Roma protest in Czech Republic

On April 18, an eight-member Romani family living in the small Moravian village of Vitkov was attacked in their home with Molotov cocktails, which completely destroyed the house. Someone reportedly turned off the water to the building before setting it on fire. The parents of a two-year-old girl and the girl herself were severely injured; while the girl remains in hospital, her parents have since been released. On May 3 they both attended a local demonstration by the Roma community against rising neo-Nazism in the Czech Republic. Demonstrations took place in 11 other locations nationwide and were attended by 3 000 people. Such a unified gathering of the Roma community has not taken place since 1989.

The Prague demonstration was attended by outgoing Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and other leading figures from civic, religious and political life. Amnesty International has given its support to the movement as a whole. Speakers reminded those gathered that Roma partisans died during WWII defending Czechoslovakia and contributed to the rebuilding of the country during the postwar era. They also called on those assembled to realize the political ambitions and motivation behind the current wave of neo-Nazi demonstrations.

The arson attack occurred on the same evening as a large neo-Nazi demonstration in the North Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem, led by the vice-chair of the neo-Nazi Workers’ Party, Petr Kotáb. In the run-up to European Parliamentary elections in June, the party has spent most of the year targeting Roma communities in various towns across the country with demonstrations and ‘patrols’ clearly intended to provoke violence against the Roma, and earn votes for the Workers’ Party. Should the party earn a mere 1% of the vote, it will be eligible for state funds. At the start of the year the Czech government filed an extremely weak—some say an intentionally weak—lawsuit against the party with the Supreme Administrative Court to have it dissolved, but judges ruled against the motion as the evidence submitted was not persuasive.

Not all of the Roma demonstrations occurred as peacefully as the one in Prague. In Chomutov, a town infamous for using illegal methods to collect back rents or other fees from welfare recipients, 100 neo-Nazis attacked the demonstration, throwing flares and firecrackers into the crowd without police interference. The demonstration was called off early, but resumed elsewhere in town in much smaller numbers. Roma from Prague, Náchod and Ustí nad Labem traveled there to show solidarity, as did outgoing Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb.

The perpetrators of the arson attack, one of several committed against Roma homes in recent months, have not yet been apprehended. Speculation in the Czech press ranges from racial motivation to the possibility that the attack was committed by loan sharks or even by the victims themselves. Immediately after the attack, authorities transferred the injured father to prison in Prague to complete a sentence for a nonviolent crime he had avoided serving, but Czech President Václav Klaus ordered the sentence interrupted so the man could be returned to his family. Klaus has the power to grant clemency but so far has not done so.

Gwendolyn Albert in Prague for World War 4 Report

See our last posts on the Czech Republic, the Roma and the radical right resurgence.

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