Plzeň mayor faces dilemma as neo-Nazis plan new march past synagogue

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

The Czech Republic’s freedom of speech and assembly laws have been tested to the full in recent months by a small but determined group of neo-Nazis. For the second time this year, the city of Plzeň in West Bohemia is bracing itself for a march by far-right radicals, and politicians are wondering whether it might not be time to prune the country’s legislation to prevent such marches from going ahead.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
Pavel Rödl is a man with a problem. He’s the mayor of Plzeň, the regional capital of West Bohemia, home to the famous Pilsner Urquell brewery and also the second largest synagogue in Europe. On January 19th, 66 years after the first transport of Plzeň Jews to the concentration camps, a group of neo-Nazis wanted to march past the synagogue. There was an outcry, and Mayor Rödl banned the march. 1,000 police officers were deployed and people were advised to stay home. In the end a dozen or so skinheads turned up and nothing happened.

The group filed a complaint. On Friday, a court ruled the march should have gone ahead. The mayor had effectively broken the law guaranteeing free assembly. The group says it will hold another rally, on March 1st. Once again they want to march past the synagogue. Once again, Pavel Rödl has to weigh up whether to break the law.

The dilemma has sparked a debate among politicians as to whether Czech legislation should be changed to deny neo-Nazis the freedom of assembly. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek had this to say to Czech television:

“If it’s possible to hold neo-Nazi marches in this way and if the law allows them and if the law even criminalises those who have the courage to try and ban them…then clearly we have to examine the way the law is written.”

But comments like that are anathema even to some in Mr Topolánek’s own party, the Civic Democrats. Czechs paid dearly for the freedom of speech and assembly, for so long denied them by the communists. Marek Benda is a Civic Democrat MP and son of the late dissident Václav Benda:

“I’m just really afraid that an amendment to the law would be abused – in other words that we’d end up banning more things than we should.”

So it seems unlikely the law will be changed. Indeed some politicians argue the present legislation is more than adequate, if applied correctly. For now, all eyes are on Pavel Rödl and whether he’ll wield his power to ban another neo-Nazi meeting on March 1st.