Government 'declares war' on skinheads - but will it reassure the Roma?

Prime Minister Milos Zeman

Three years ago the Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told a crowd of several thousand people outside Prague's School of Economics that he was declaring war on far-right skinheads.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman
He was speaking days after the murder of a black economics student - who was hunted down and stabbed to death by two skinheads outside a student dormitory in Prague's Zizkov district. What followed was a rare moment of rapid and cohesive action by the authorities - amid much public outcry the skinheads were arrested, charged and sentenced for murder in a matter of months. But in that case the victim was a black foreign student - more frequent are attacks on the country's Roma minority, and as Rob Cameron reports, they rarely receive such a degree of public sympathy.

Jana - not her real name - fled the Czech Republic 18 months ago. Last week I spoke to her by telephone from her new home in Britain:

"I emigrated because I was attacked and raped by skinheads. I was raped and beaten simply because I have dark skin. Nobody helped me. My mum went to the police, but all they said was 'OK, we'll file a report and look into it.' ... I think that it'll always be the same. Romanies will always be afraid, especially that their children will be beaten up or raped. That's why they're going to England and Canada. They're just afraid."

Violent attacks like that one are not a daily occurrence. But Jana told me that she, her family and her friends lived in a climate of fear in the Czech Republic. While she admitted there were also economic reasons why Roma were emigrating to destinations such as Canada, Britain and Belgium, the chief reason was fear of attack by skinheads, and in particular concerns for their children's safety. She told me the Czech authorities had been simply unable to convince her that she would be protected in her own country. And that's why she left.

Many people share the view that the authorities are not doing enough to fight far-right extremists and protect the Roma from attack. One of them is Jan Jarab, the government's commissioner for human rights.

"I think the Interior Ministry is not doing enough, the police are not doing enough in this respect, and I'm extremely critical of their work. I'm afraid they have accepted a wrong concept of extremism as a very broad concept which will include everybody from neo-Nazis to squatters to people who smoke marihuana. They do not even distinguish that attacks against a person - racially-motivated attacks against a person - are something of a totally different category."

That was last week. On Monday the cabinet approved measures proposed by Interior Minister Stanislav Gross which he says will significantly help the authorities fight neo-Nazis. Police will now have the right to use undercover agents and bugging devices among other things, as well as intervene in private functions if they think they're being used a cover for clandestine neo-Nazi events.

But none of that has anything to do with the courts, and the fact that attacks on the Roma and other minorities are frequently not seen as racially motivated. And Jan Jarab told me there needs to be a general change in attitude to ensure that racially-motivated attacks on members of the Roma community are seen as just that.

"Unless we move beyond this - in my opinion - wrong definition of extremism that we have here, I'm afraid that the only thing we will get is that sometimes some neo-Nazis will be held accountable for some neo-Nazi symbolic. But on the level of attacks against Roma, we will still have this [practice of] looking the other way and saying 'maybe it wasn't racially-motivated' and 'how do you know?' and all this that we've been listening to for so long. [This] is really making me sometimes angry and sometimes desperate."