Tougher sentences for skinheads

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The regional court in the North Moravian town of Ostrava has reached a final verdict in the case of four skinheads charged with causing the death of a Roma man three years ago. The case has been tried four times, first as merely an act of hooliganism, then as grievous bodily harm, and now, finally as physical assault resulting in death. Only now, in the final verdict, has the act been qualified as racially motivated, although from the start there was evidence that the group of skinheads shouted racist slogans as they attacked Milan Lacko, beat him to the ground and left him lying in the road where he was run over by a car. Olga Szantova asked Czech Human Rights Commissioner Jan Jarab why the crime had not been recognized as racially motivated during the first trial:

"It does happen a lot, particularly in the lower courts. The degree of actual guilt of those perpetrators is very often evaluated rather leniently when the attackers are ethnic Czechs and the victims are Roma or even foreigners. I could only speculate on the reasons why that happens and if there is a lack of identification with the victims or too much of an identification with the perpetrators, or because the general quality of judgment on the first degree court level is not very promising even in cases which do not have this racial component. I cannot say across the board, but in many of them."

Is it a question of the laws having to be changed?

"Not at all. Changing the law will not produce a better judge. Judges should, above all, be wise people and then, of course, they should have good legal thinking. I am far from saying that we don't have such judges. Of course we have judges who are wise people and who have good legal thinking. The problem is, we do not have enough of them, particularly on the lower levels of the judiciary."

Would you say that this reluctance to recognize racial motivation mirrors the general atmosphere in society?

"It does mirror the relatively high levels of prejudice against Roma in the general population."

This last verdict in the Lacko case was passed after numerous protests from human rights groups and Roma activists. Is there a tendency for more awareness in these cases?

"There is definitely a tendency for much more public awareness and media are far more aware than, let's say, some eight years ago, when such cases went almost without public attention. I'm sure there is."

As for this last and final sentence, do you consider 16 months and three years respectively adequate?

"It is not much how to evaluate sentences, if the sentence is or is not adequate, I respect it. What we should always look at is guilty or not guilty, the verdict as the qualification of the crime. I would not be the one who would be calling for higher sentences, even in the cases of these perpetrators, what I would like to see is having them sentenced in the first round, not after numerous appeals, and without all those - sorry to say - attempts to cover up their guilt."

Author: Olga Szantová
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