Why Chinese masks destined for Italy were seized (not ‘stolen’) by Czech authorities

Photo: ČTK/Vojtěch Hájek

In times of war, it is often said, truth is the first casualty. In the midst of the battle to contain the coronavirus, Czech authorities during a customs raid last Tuesday mistakenly seized 101,600 facemasks gifted by a branch of the Red Cross in eastern China to a Chinese community in Italy. Although Czech officials apologized for the mix-up, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Sunday published a bogus article claiming the Czech state had “stolen” that shipment – and much more.

Jan Hamáček,  photo: ČTK/Michal Kamaryt
Interior Minister Jan Hamáček, citing the Crisis Act, announced via Twitter on March 17 that he had directed the impoundment of 700,000 facemasks and 28,000 respirators in a warehouse in Lovosice, north Bohemia.

The reason for the customs raid, he wrote, was that an unidentified supplier was engaging in “immoral [price-gouging] at a time when health professionals and ordinary citizens are risking their lives” to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

While a criminal investigation is underway, it soon emerged that 101,600 of the seized facemasks were destined for the Chinese community in Italy. On Friday (March 20), Minister Hamáček apologized for the mix-up and Czech authorities promised to send an equivalent shipment.

The next day, the Italian daily La Repubblica published an article claiming in fact the entire shipment had been gifted to Italy – and impying the Czech government had staged a bogus sting operation to steal it. The newspaper credited a “courageous Czech researcher” with exposing the ugly truth.

That researcher, Lukáš Lev Červinka, an expert in EU Constitutional Law, Italian Politics and International Security at the Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based think tank, had posted images on his Facebook page showing stacks of seized boxes marked “Siamo con voi. Forza Italia!”, or loosely translated “We are with you. Stay strong, Italy!”. Červinka wrote:

“If it turns out to be humanitarian aid for Italy (which its seems to be), then I would not want to explain to the Italian Embassy in Prague that not only did we first refuse to help Italy when it needed medical supplies … we confiscated humanitarian aid to Italy instead of sending it to where it belongs.”

Seized facemasks in Lovosice,  photo: ČTK/Vojtěch Hájek
Červinka, who speaks Italian, acknowledged that he spoke to La Repubblica but told Czech media that his words had been misconstrued, and he regretted the damage the story has done to the reputation of the Czech Republic.

As international media picked up on La Repubblica’s story, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček announced on Sunday (March 22) that he had sent his Italian counterpart a letter explaining the situation in full.

Minister Petříček added that the Czechs would send 110,000 facemasks to Italy on Monday (March 23), dispatched along with an evacuation bus of 43 Italian nationals heading home, as agreed with the Italian Embassy in Prague.

It remains unclear why humanitarian aid from China destined for Italy ended up in a Czech warehouse. But “the Czech Republic certainly didn’t steal anything,” he told AFP.