Chomutov proposes “tabloid tactics” to deter German sex tourists

r_2100x1400_radio_praha.png

The fall of communism and the arrival of the free market produced a boom in a number of sectors of the Czech economy, but one area that’s enjoyed unparalleled growth is what’s sometimes called the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution – much of it street prostitution run by criminal gangs – is commonplace in towns close to the Austrian and German borders. One of them is the industrial city of Chomutov, in northwest Bohemia. There the local authorities have come up with a novel plan to push prostitution out of the city limits. But as Rob Cameron reports, the plan could run into legal difficulties.

Chomutov deputy mayor Jan Řehák
Prostitution in the Czech Republic exists in a legal grey area. Offering sex for money is not a crime. But neither is offering such a service a legally recognised trade. What is illegal is forcing other people into prostitution or profiting from doing so.

This legal vacuum means local authorities and the police are more or less powerless to stop it, resorting instead to harassing street prostitutes for breaking minor regulations in the hope they’ll move on. Chomutov has actually issued a local decree banning street prostitution, but police have problems enforcing the ban because all they can do is issue fines. So in Chomutov, a town with economic problems and a steady stream of German sex tourists, the problem persists. Jan Řehák is Chomutov’s deputy mayor:

“Unfortunately our efforts at cracking down on street prostitution have had almost no effect. The fines are meaningless - the women don’t pay them, and they aren’t registered with the local Labour Office so the police are effectively powerless to stop them plying their trade on the streets. It’s a game of cat and mouse. As soon as the police drive by, the women nip into a bar or a restaurant and as soon as the police are gone, they’re back out on the street. So that’s why we looked for different approaches that would be more effective than the ones we’re using at present. And one of them is the principle of - ‘if there’s no demand, there’s no supply’.”

That approach – still being examined by the lawyers – is controversial. Mr Řehák and his colleagues want to install closed-circuit cameras in areas frequented by prostitutes. When a man stops to pick up a prostitute, a police unit will be despatched to flag down his car. He will be questioned and a photograph taken including the car’s licence plate. The photograph will then be sent to the man’s address with an explanatory note that it was taken in an area popular with prostitutes. The idea is that the man’s wife or partner will receive the letter, and thereafter he will be shamed into visiting Chomutov for the purposes of tourism or shopping and nothing else. It’s an unorthodox proposal, but Jan Řehák says desperate times call for desperate measures:

“I agree that the idea is on the fringes of the law, but you have to realise that the people who live in the area are really going through hell. The prostitutes’ behaviour is really beyond the limits of decency. A lot of them are on drugs, a lot of them are drunk, and the things they do to attract clients…well. So the people who live there – and they own property there remember – have to watch this going on all day long, from morning to night. The women shout disgusting things at them when they walk by with their kids. So this is why we’ve been looking for an approach that would actually work, even it is an extreme one.”

But it’s too extreme for some. Several official bodies, including the Interior Ministry and the Office for the Protection of Personal Data, say the scheme would see Chomutov tiptoeing into a legal minefield. Lawyer Svatopluk Bunda, from the nearby city of Usti nad Labem, says Mr Řehák’s proposal is legally indefensible:

“What Mr Rehak is proposing is on the fringes of the law. In fact it goes beyond that, it’s a crime – defamation of character, paragraph 206 of the Czech legal code. Because not every photograph, and not all the information contained in a photograph, is necessarily accurate. And if it’s not accurate, then it’s defamatory. It would defame the man’s character in the eyes of his fellow citizens or co-workers, and most of all – and this is something protected under Czech law – it would damage the relationship with his family. It could lead to divorce. It could lead to the break-up of his family or the loss of his children. This proposal truly contravenes Czech law, and therefore I as a lawyer cannot agree with it.”

Even Mr Řehák from Chomutov city council points out this is just a proposal, and is still being consulted with the authorities in Prague and the city’s own lawyers. If it is introduced, it’s likely to be challenged immediately. If it is ruled unlawful, Chomutov will have to go back to the drawing board.