News Monday, JANUARY 29th, 2001

By Nick Carey

Four Party Coalition chooses leader

The Four Party Coalition, a grouping of four small, centre-right opposition parties, has chosen its first joint leader. After discussions between the leaders of the four parties, which lasted all weekend, the coalition announced that Cyril Svoboda, the Deputy Chairman of the Christian Democrats, will become leader of the coalition. This came as a surprise, as Mr. Svoboda was not one of the candidates for the post. Mr. Svoboda will now have to put together a shadow cabinet by the end of March, in order to prepare for general elections in 2002. The Four Party Coalition performed very well in senate and regional elections late last year. Recent opinion polls have put the coalition in the lead.

USA criticises Cuba over arrest of Czechs

For the first time since George W. Bush took office last week, the United States has criticised Cuba over the arrest of two Czechs and called for their immediate release. The US State Department described as ludicrous allegations that the men, MP Ivan Pilip and former student leader Jan Bubenik, were US-funded subversives. The State Department further said that the U.S. government did not supply the two men with money or equipment, and that no-one from the U.S. government met with them before their trip.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has rejected calls from Cuba that the Czech government apologise for the actions of Mr. Pilip and Mr. Bubenik, who met with Cuban dissidents prior to their arrest. Mr. Zeman said that no credible charges or any substantial evidence had been brought against the two men, and that he saw no reason to apologise. Charges have been brought against the two men for subversion, and if convicted, they could face up to twenty years in prison.

Castro: defend the embassy with your lives

On a related note, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has called on staff at the Cuban embassy in Prague that if necessary, they should be ready to lay down their lives in the defence of the embassy. In a telephone call between Castro and the Cuban charges d'affaires in Prague, David Paulovich, Castro is reported to have said, that he believed that staff would rather die than allow attackers to gain entrance to the embassy.

Schmarcz: new law on Czech TV worse

A spokesman for striking staff members at Czech TV, Martin Schmarz, says that the new law on Czech Television is worse than the old one. But, he said that staff members will respect the law, and will not prevent the station's future director from doing his or her job. Earlier this month, thousands of people demonstrated against the selection of Jiri Hodac as director of Czech Television. He was chosen by a politically-appointed council, and was accused of political bias. A new law has been passed concerning the selection of the council, whereby members will be proposed by independent organisations, and voted on by the lower house. An interim director of Czech TV is due to be chosen on February 9th.

Lower House passes tough new law on graffiti sprayers

The Lower House of Parliament has passed tough new measures against graffiti sprayers. For years, Prague in particular has been unsuccessful in its fight against graffiti sprayers. Under existing laws, which have been criticised for being too lenient, the maximum fine for graffiti is three thousand Czech Crowns, or roughly eighty dollars. The law passed by the lower house proposes that minor offenders should receive a one-year sentence or a fine. Those who cause major damage to architecture could face a jail sentence of two to eight years. The bill still has to pass through the Senate and be signed by President Havel before it becomes law.

Senior opposition party demands resignation of finance minister

The main opposition Civic Democrats have called on Finance Minister, Pavel Mertlik, to resign over guarantees his ministry provided to the bank CSOB, for the liabilities of IPB bank. CSOB took over IPB a few days after the Czech National Bank imposed forced administration on IPB last June. Now, the state may have to pay out up to 180 billion CZK, which is nearly a third of size of this year's state budget. The Civic Democrats have asked for details of the deal between the government and CSOB to be publicised. Mr. Mertlik has refused to step down and accused the Civic Democrats of misleading the public, saying the state will only have to pay around half the total guarantee to CSOB.

Police break drug pervitin ring

Police in Prague have arrested seven people suspected of being part of an organised drug ring. The six men and one woman have been charged with illegally producing and possessing quantities of the narcotic pervitin, with a street value of twenty three million Czech Crowns, ore more than five hundred thousand dollars. If convicted, they could face up to fifteen years in prison.

And finally, a quick look at the weather forecast. Monday should bring partially cloudy to overcast skies, with isolated snow showers in places. Daytime high temperatures should reach three degrees Celsius. Night-time lows are expected to drop to minus nine degrees Celsius.