Court hands tough sentences to Vítkov arsonists

Jaromír Lukeš, photo: CTK

Four Czechs behind a brutal arson attack last year, that targeted the home of a Romany family in Vítkov in the east of the country, have been handed extraordinary sentences of up to 22 years in jail. The verdict is the toughest ever handed down in the country regarding a racially-motivated crime.

Jaromír Lukeš,  photo: CTK
Without question the Vítkov arson case has been one of the most closely-watched trials in Czech history and Wednesday it ended with guilty verdicts and extra-ordinary prison sentences for the four defendants: 22 years behind bars for three of the plotters Jaromír Lukeš, Ivo Müller, and David Vaculík, and 20 for the fourth defendant, Václav Cojocaru. In addition they were also sentenced to pay the equivalent of almost 1 million US dollars in damages and hospital costs.

On Wednesday as he issued the ruling, the judge said the trial had proven the defendants had intended to kill for racially-motivated reasons when they threw three Molotov cocktails at the family home last April 19. In the attack, three people – Anna Siváková, her husband and their two-year-old daughter Natálka were injured, the toddler most brutally: she suffered severe burns to 80 percent of her body and barely survived. Wednesday’s ruling is the toughest ever handed-down in the Czech Republic for a racially-motivated crime. After the ruling, human rights activist Markus Pape, representing the Sivák family, had this to say:

Anna Siváková,  photo: CTK
“At this moment the family is glad that the first-instance court issued its ruling. There is great relief for the family and a feeling that there is some kind of justice in this country. The verdict of October 20, 2010 is a precedent. Until in similar attacks it was not possible to find the perpetrators or they were given only minor sentences. We hope that today’s verdict will signal a change in the approach to such crimes and the state will begin to deal intensively to deal with structures that lead to such crimes.”

The court found that the four men – who had ties to right-wing extremism – threw firebombs at the Sivák family’s home to gain notoriety within the neo-Nazi movement, the court found: it was no coincidence the attack took place on the eve of the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday. All the same, the four defendants – only one of whom expressed regret for his actions – pleaded not guilty; the defence argued they had never attempted murder, but believed the home to be empty; that argument did not stand up. Markus Pape again:

“I believe that the evidence against them in this case was very solid: even if they did not intend to commit murder, they were certainly fine with the result. This was an indirect purpose to kill. Of course, we have to wait for the written verdict to comment. But in general, today was a ‘holiday of justice’. Together with the victims in the attack and members of the broader Roma community both here and abroad, today we are very glad.”

Ivo Müller  (left),  Václav Cojocaru,  photo: CTK
Although many in the public likely agree with the ruling, there are some who think that the sentences handed down on Wednesday are too tough: a non-scientific poll on one news website with around 1,000 respondents showed that roughly half thought the sentences should have been lighter. Neither do all experts on extremism believe it will serve as an additional deterrent, although of late the far-right movement in the Czech Republic has lost significant momentum. In any case, all four of the defendants in the Vítkov case have already appealed, meaning the case will now go to a higher-instance court.