Campaigner van Gemund planning legal action after detention prevents him from demonstrating against Zeman

Otakar van Gemund, photo: Ian Willoughby

Otakar van Gemund was questioned by the police – and subsequently detained for two hours – while on his way to demonstrate against President Miloš Zeman in Prague on November 17. The anti-Vladimir Putin protester, who previously disrupted a news conference conducted by the Czech PM, says it was the second time that day the police had stopped him and checked his ID without offering a reason.

Otakar van Gemund, photo: Ian Willoughby
He is now planning legal action over his treatment, which he says was unconstitutional. When we spoke at Prague’s Václav Havel Airport, where he was taking part in a different protest, I first asked Otakar van Gemund, whose mother is Czech, what had brought him here from his native Holland.

“When I was 20 I decided to go on a student exchange. It was officially called an exchange, but I don’t think any Czech student was ever allowed out of the country to visit Holland. This provided for a year-long course in Czech at Charles University

“I came here in I think it was August ’89. Then the Velvet Revolution erupted and I was of course immediately hooked to everything that was happening here, to the revolution, to this fantastic country full of love and hope. That’s also when I met my first wife.”

What kind of a ‘90s did you have?

“Very nice. I really enjoyed them [laughs].”

What kind of stuff were you getting up to?

“Not much useful, of course. Lots of parties and nice things, until serious things began: family life and having to look after my first child. So I started to work here as a translator and I have remained a translator ever since.”

Many people support human rights in theory. But what drives you to take action in support of human rights? What’s driving you?

“When since Havel’s death, his ideals, that truth and love should prevail over hatred and lies – which of course sounds a bit naïve – has been ridiculed by politicians and also by certain undercurrents in Czech politics.

“Since Havel died politicians have made light of his defence of human rights in the world. Increasingly foreign policy here has been based on business interests. Not so much real, realistic business interests but the interests of lobbyists who are pro-Russia.”

Have you got a Russian connection? Have you got a personal stake in Russia or Ukraine? What’s the connection for you?

Photo: Czech Television
“Absolutely none. My stake is that I think it is our obligation – the obligation of every sound thinking democratic person – to defend Ukraine almost to the death. Because if Ukraine goes, the rest of the free world and Europe certainly goes.”

You’re involved in a few different groups that are overlapping, I believe. Kaputin – like “kaput for Putin” – is the main one, is that right?

“That was the original one and where the three other groups have emerged from. They overlap but are not the same.

“Kaputin was established in May with some people I met on the internet who had I didn’t know previously but who made an impression on me.

“We decided to we could no longer watch this whole development, this war in Ukraine, which no-one was speaking about, which was almost treated like a taboo subject.

“We thought we should do some direct action – to mobilise Czech society, to mobilise Czech politics, and by extension also European politics.

“We hope to be an inspiration to other groups like us, on Facebook or elsewhere, to do something to make public opinion aware of the encroaching danger of Putin’s aggression and his complete lack of respect for the rule of law, democracy and European institutions.”

You’ve been in the news recently for an incident that took place on November 17, when you tried to attend a protest against President Zeman. Could you please tell us what happened on that day?

“This is another offshoot of Kaputin. It’s a group of people – men and women I must stress – which conducts protest actions, by the men. It’s called Omen.”

Inspired by Femen?

“It’s inspired by Femen. We also bear the upper parts of our bodies, though there is not so much to see there. Except for some slogans. The whole point is that we just appear as a flash mob and…”

And take your shirts off?

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek
“Take our shirts off. Jackets, ties. And show our message. Usually we also hold a banner or flag which symbolises something.

“In the case of the prime minister’s press conference, we pretended to be journalists and jumped on chairs, removed our tops and showed the slogans Defend Freedom, Freedom not Pâtés and other such slogans, and showed the flags of the European Union and NATO.

“After this incident I suppose the police took a very close look at me. I had to say all that before I can get back to the incident of November 17.

“On November 17 I was indeed planning to do a very similar thing. I wanted to get in the direct vicinity of Miloš Zeman, the very pro-Russian president here in the Czech Republic, bare my chest, together with my colleague, and show a huge banner with a portrait of Václav Havel.

“With this in mind, we went to Národní třída, in case he would appear there. He didn’t appear there and then we went to the Carolinum, following his itinerary.

“We were soon surrounded by many policemen, one of whom even remarked, aren’t you Otakar Van Gemund?

“Then suddenly the motorcade arrived. The plan was to bare out chests when he got out of his car, but we were suddenly completely surrounded by policemen, uniformed and non-uniformed. And we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t make a move.

“Then they wanted me to identify myself, without giving me any reason why…”

Which they are obliged to do by law – if they want to see your papers, they have to say why.

“Yes. And they didn’t. I hadn’t had any time so I thought, this didn’t work out, so I will go to the next point on Zeman’s programme.”

Which was at Albertov?

“Albertov, indeed. When I got out of a very packed tram full of other people who also wanted to go to that demonstration, I went in the direction of Albertov.

November 17, 2014, Albertov, Prague, photo: Czech Television
“Suddenly somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, this is the criminal police, could you identify yourself. And he wouldn’t say.”

And you filmed all of this – it’s on YouTube?

“Yes. It’s a really miracle they allowed me to do so. Of course I have a right to do so, but considering what they were saying on the film, that they didn’t even consider this strange, or incriminating towards themselves, already in itself says a lot about the undemocratic mores of the Czech police.

“This policeman said, well, I can ask for you identification because I can. Then he said, you are wearing a black coat and there are people in this city who are robbing shops in black coats.

“Another policeman came who made up a story about me and my colleague wanting to jump into the motorcade when it was moving. They made up a variety of reasons why they should hold me.

“At some point there was a third man who said, there is an exhibitionist on the loose in Prague who is revealing himself – and by all accounts it’s you.

“I was forced into a little courtyard, where I was asked if I had something written on my body, something on my shirt. I said, it’s none of your business; and I was very surprised to hear this, because how could they know this?

“And then they just undressed my top…”

You mean they manhandled you?

“They said, we are going to remove your shirt. I refused, so they did it, instead of me. Then they found the slogan, Miloši, na čí straně jsi?”

That’s not so offensive [though it does use the informal address]. It means, which side are you on?

“Yes, which side are you on, Miloš? There were much more offensive slogans on that day.”

In the end they took you into a police station?

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes, they took me to a police station. There they again asked me to take off my shirt. Again I refused, again they took it off, and took pictures of me.

“Then I said, I refuse to speak, this is outrageous, you have no right to hold me. They said, that’s not necessary, because we haven’t arrested you, we have only taken you into protective custody.

“Or something of the kind. I don’t know if that is the exact translation: Nezadrželi jsme vás, zajistili jsme vás.

“That doesn’t require… I don’t have to cooperate there, I don’t have to, apparently, sign anything. I only had to stay there until they wrote their protocol.

“That took them two hours and 10 minutes and by the time I was released all the occasions at which I could make my point to President Zeman were over.”

Are you considering legal action?

“Indeed, yes. I am of course. Yes.”

What are you going to do?

“I’m going to put forward a complaint with the police, against this anti-constitutional and unlawful behaviour. I want to demand an inquiry into the whole background of this because I have the sense that it was done on someone’s behest.”

Do you have Czech citizenship?

“No, I don’t.”

Do you feel you could be taking a risk by putting yourself in a situation in which you could be in conflict with the police?

Illustrative photo: Honza Ptáček
“Of course. Of course it’s not pleasant. But I think it is such an important matter – and a very serious one, at that.

“Because if people can be preventively arrested, just because they have a black coat, or they suspect you of jumping into a motorcade before you have even done so… without even having the slightest proof of any intention, then we are in a very serious situation in this country.”