The arrest of two Czech women puts further strain on Czech-Cuban relations

Helena Houdova, photo: CTK

Relations between the Czech Republic and Cuba have been strained for some time, after a number of diplomatic spats. Tensions between the two states have risen further since the arrest last week of two Czech women - including former Miss Czech Republic Helena Houdova - while they were taking photographs of a slum area.

Helena Houdova,  photo: CTK
The two Czech women were detained by police as they were taking photographs of a poverty ridden district in Havana. "There was a lot of shouting as we were dragged off - and one of the officers shouted that we were terrorists", Helena Houdova said later. She and her psychologist friend Mariana Kroftova made the trip to Havana to ascertain how children on the island could benefit from their charity work. Mariana Kroftova says she thought the eleven hours they spent in detention would never end:

"They took us to a police station where nobody spoke to us or properly explained what was going on. We were just able to make out that we were accused of engaging in counter-revolutionary activities against the Cuban regime. What was worse they refused to let us call the Czech embassy. So we spent the 11 hours without knowing what our fate would be."

The two women were eventually released at 3am after pledging in writing that they would not engage in any counter-revolutionary activities in Cuba. Both remained under house arrest until leaving the country. The Czech Foreign Ministry has described their treatment as a flagrant violation of international law. Richard Krpac is from the ministry's press department:

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers this act - refusing Czech citizens contact with the embassy - a grave violation of one of the basic and most important human rights for citizens abroad - which is the right to consular access."

The Cuba charge d'affaires was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday to explain the incident. Richard Krpac says the ministry is not happy with the outcome of the meeting:

"The charge d'affaires of the Cuban embassy in Prague was called in yesterday to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain the treatment of the two Czech citizens by the Cuban authorities. However -citing a lack of information from Havana on this issue - the charge d' affaires was unable to explain it. She promised to do so in the near future."

Helena Houdova and Mariana Kroftova,  photo: CTK
Asked why the women were arrested the charge d'affaires said it was because they had "deliberately waged a campaign against Cuba in cooperation with Cuban dissidents". This is a standard line used in connection with many Czechs who visit the island. Many are refused entry on the suspicion that they plan to meet with Cuban dissidents. Two Czechs -a member of Parliament and an NGO worker who did - spent 3 weeks in a Cuban jail in 2001.

A one time communist ally of Cuba - the Czech Republic is now seen as a dangerous adversary. Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, Prague has been vocal in supporting human rights on the island and is one of the leading proponents of a tougher international stance against the Castro regime. In spite of the worsened relations the Czech Foreign Ministry says it expects Cuba to respect international law.