News Sunday, JANUARY 28th, 2001

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By: Nick Carey

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 allegations that the men, MP Ivan Pilip and former student leader Jan Bubenik, were US-funded subversives, as ludicrous. 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.

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 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. Sunday should bring partially cloudy to overcast skies, with isolated rain or snow showers. Daytime temperatures could reach as high up to four degrees Celsius. Night-time lows are expected to drop to minus four degrees Celsius.