Court ruling in racial attack case provokes controversy

On Tuesday a district court judge in the Northern Moravian town of Jesenik upheld an appeal by four youths suspected of participating in a racially motivated attack on a Romany man. The judge released the four men despite a Supreme Court ruling stating that the four men were clearly accomplices in the attack. The latest ruling has been greeted with shock and anger by some minority groups and, say some, brings into question the Czech Supreme Court's reason for being, if a lower court can ignore its rulings. Nick Carey has this report.

Altogether there were six youths, reportedly members of an extreme right skinhead movement, suspected of being involved in an attack on a young Romany man in a bar in Jesenik in July 1999. Two of them apparently beat him with baseball bats and pool balls, while the rest protected those involved in the attack. While two of the six youths received custodial sentences for the attack, the remaining four were acquitted last year, as the district judge, Milos Kubicek, said there was not enough evidence to convict them of being accomplices.

The case went to the Supreme Court last August, and the court's judges ruled that there was enough evidence to convict the four youths, and that the district court in Jesenik should re-examine the case. On Tuesday, Judge Kubicek ruled for a second time in favour of the four youths, saying there was still insufficient evidence to convict them.

By ignoring the Supreme Court's ruling, which was based on the same evidence, Makus Pape of the European Roma Rights Centre believes that the district court judge has sent a clear signal to skinheads in the area:

"I think that he's simply telling them to go ahead, they don't have to be afraid of prosecution, of any strict verdicts for racial attacks. I think the judge does not see any danger in the actions of the six accused, I think the court has enough evidence that those four youths were skinheads. But I think there is a group of skinheads in Jesenik which has been quite active in the past few years and the court in Jesenik does not seem to be willing to prosecute them for this."

Despite the efforts by the Czech government to fight racially motivated crime, Markus Pape believes that problems within the Czech judicial system could harm the country's international reputation:

"Our work, actually my work, is to monitor this type of case and I don't think this will benefit the process for entering the European Union, or for the reputation of this country in the world. I believe that the Czech government does a lot to improve, to better the reputation of this country. But still, there are cases like this and it's surprising that this judge is not aware of the danger of a neo-Nazi movement in this country."

Although the Czech government cannot dictate court rulings, Mr Pape says the Ministry of Justice should take action to support Supreme Court rulings:

"The Ministry of Justice should make it clear that there is a procedure for the criminal code in this country and it should be valid for all citizens and for all the judges."