Proposed law on assembly kicks off civil rights debate

Interior Minister Stanislav Gross

Less than a month ago, Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said in public that he had lost patience with extremists and that would take steps against violent and illegal demonstrations. On Monday this week, Mr Gross presented what has been termed his opening strike against extremists, with a proposed amendment to the law on assembly, which was subsequently approved by the Cabinet. But human rights activists have expressed concern over the contents of the law, so the stage seems set for a renewed debate on the democratic right to demonstrate. Nick Carey has this report.

Interior Minister Stanislav Gross
There are two main bones of contention over the Interior Ministry's proposed law of assembly. The first is that according to the new law, any protestors caught at demonstrations trying to conceal their identities could be liable to a fine of up to ten thousand Czech crowns, or just under two hundred US dollars. The other is that the law stipulates that applications for demonstrations must be made a minimum of three months in advance, and the conditions for granting permission will become stricter. This, say some human rights activists and anarchist groups, will restrict their right to demonstrate.

But according to government spokesman Libor Roucek, the law is meant merely to clarify the legal situation for demonstrations:

"The main aim of the law is to bring the current legal situation under one umbrella and to strengthen rights on one hand, but also to strengthen the duties of the people who organise the assemblies on the other."

Some of the clauses in the new law are widely believed to come from the experiences of the police, gained in violent clashes with demonstrators during protests against the World Bank and IMF last September in Prague. Vaclav Trojan of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly feels that yes, some change to the law was necessary, but that this could be going too far:

"I think it is partially the experience that the police did not have enough legal tools to operate in these quite tense and complicated situations. I think that some slight, slight changes in the law would be acceptable, but such a strong change to create a new law and to create a philosophy of public freedom is a bit dangerous."

The main Czech political parties have already given their backing to the proposed law, so it will likely pass through parliament without too much opposition. But there will still no doubt be a public debate over what the right to demonstrate means, and how this law affects that right.

On one hand, government spokesman Libor Roucek believes that this form of legislation is common in the West, and that after forty years of Communism, the Czech government has no intention of infringing upon the right to demonstrate:

"I don't see it as a concern, because the first and the basic principle is that the new law will guarantee the freedom of assembly, because that's sacred for us. After having the experience of living for forty years under Communism, this principle is sacred. On the other hand, as is the situation in many Western countries, yes, there is the freedom of assembly and the freedom of demonstration, but there has to be some organisation, and this principle is also included in that new law."

But according to Vaclav Trojan, any attempt to legislate on the right to demonstrate is dangerous:

"It is really a very, very dangerous idea. Any kind of administrative restrictions - I think that basically demonstrations can be held if the law is not broken. And it's the right of citizens to express themselves, to express [themselves] and to behave in the framework of the law. It reminds me a little bit of a comeback to the idea of a police state - I don't want to accuse this state of intentionally creating a police state, but there are some relics of that."