Letter from Prague

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The general election is fast approaching and all the political parties have already begun jostling for voters. Better economic conditions and lower taxes are being promised, and one of the promises each party seems to have is combating crime in the Czech Republic. The crime rate has been rising steeply since the early 1990s while the number of resolved cases seems to be only slightly higher. While in 1996 the police caught every fourth burglar, last year it was 26.9 percent. Burglaries seem to be losing 'popularity' - while six years ago, there were 110,000 break-ins, last year there were 'only' 63,000 burglaries.

The general election is fast approaching and all the political parties have already begun jostling for voters. Better economic conditions and lower taxes are being promised, and one of the promises each party seems to have is combating crime in the Czech Republic. The crime rate has been rising steeply since the early 1990s while the number of resolved cases seems to be only slightly higher. While in 1996 the police caught every fourth burglar, last year it was 26.9 percent. Burglaries seem to be losing 'popularity' - while six years ago, there were 110,000 break-ins, last year there were 'only' 63,000 burglaries.

Currently, politicians are trying to trump each other by making promises about their particular ways of cracking down on crime. While the right-of-centre Civic Democrats are promising to introduce a stricter policy on foreigners, the Coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union-DEU say they will lower the age limit for young delinquents, to make them punishable from the age of 14. None of the current parliamentary parties promise to re-introduce the death penalty, abolished after 1989, although nearly two thirds of Czechs would welcome this move, as recent surveys have shown.

The Coalition promises to partly fight crime by making it impossible for the most dangerous criminals to be released on probation. The Freedom Union chairwoman Hana Marvanova was quoted as saying that their main aim was to protect society against the further serious crimes a released convict could commit.

The Justice Ministry is preparing a new penal code. Under it, serious crimes should be punished more strictly, but on the other hand more alternative punishments should be introduced, and also, compensation for the victim will be more important than punishment of the perpetrator.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, proposes that the police be assessed according to their ability to keep the streets safe, not according to the number of operations. This envisages substantial changes in the police management, a lower number of clerks as well as the improvement of equipment.

Well, people are rather scared, many - and I'm one of them - don't dare to walk by themselves at night, but if promises are kept, the situation could be better in the near future. And something like a bad joke to end this week's Letter on - the house in Prague where the chief of the Czech Republic's police force lives was burgled two weeks ago.