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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

Although the Czech government maintained a generally acceptable level of human rights protectionfor most ethnic Czechs during 1997, human rights abuses persisted for members of the sizable Roma (Gypsy) minority. Despite some positive steps, the state did not do enough to combat the serious problem of racially motivated violence against Roma. Many Roma who claimed the Czech Republic as their country, and were nationals of Czechoslovakia prior to its breakup in 1993, could not acquire Czech citizenship because of a discriminatory citizenship law enacted that year.

Denied rights in their own country, many Roma fled abroad, encouraged by some local government officials to do so. A television program broadcast in August on the private station TV Nova showed Romani families from the Czech Republic living well in Canada with Canadian government support. The program sparked an exodus of hundreds of Roma from the Czech Republic to Canada, forcing Canada to reimpose a visa requirement for Czech citizens. A similar exodus occurred two months later to England. The mayor in Ostrava, a town with a large Roma population, offered to pay Romani families two-thirds of their travel costs. (Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus condemned her statement.)

Embarrassed by the negative world attention, the government began to address the problems that the Roma community, human rights groups, and certain organizations, like UNHCR and the OSCE, had been complaining about since 1993. In August, a report from the government's Council on Nationalities said that the government had failed to bridge the ever-growing gap between Roma and ethnic Czechs. Prime Minister Klaus initially rejected the report but, on October 29, the government approved a resolution "On the Situation of the Roma Community in the Czech Republic," which proposed concrete ways to address discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the work of the police.

A fundamental problem remained the alarming number of racially motivated attacks against Roma, usually by "skinheads" or other extremist groups. As in previous years, Czech police were sometimes hesitant to respond to Romani calls for help or to make arrests. Courts did not always consider such attacks to be racially motivated, which carries a stiffer penalty under Czech law.

Despite government statements to the contrary, there were still many Roma who were not able to obtain Czech citizenship in 1997, even if they were citizens of the former Czechoslovakia and born in the Czech Republic or had lived there most of their lives. The problem stemmed from a 1992 citizenship law, enacted when Czechoslovakia split into two countries. The law appeared discriminatory in intent and application: its requirements concerning permanent residence and five years of a clean criminal record were clearly aimed at the Roma minority and served to deny many the possibility of obtaining Czech citizenship. In addition, some Romani applicants who met all of the requirements were arbitrarily denied citizenship by local officials.

An amendment from 1996 allowed the Interior Ministry to waive the clean criminal record requirement. But insufficient efforts were made in 1997 to inform Roma about the possible waiver, and some local officials deliberately misinformed Roma about the amendment. Still, according to the government, 1,175 people were granted citizenship under the amendment.

The undetermined number of Czech Roma still without Czech citizenship, however, were unable to vote or run for office, and many had difficulty receiving permanent residence, which is necessary to receive social benefits from the state. In addition, non-citizens may be expelled from the country if they commit a crime, which happened to an undetermined number of people in 1997. In one highly publicized case, a Romani man was sentenced to expulsion from the country for stealing five dollars' worth of beets, although this judgement was later reversed. The citizenship status of orphans, many of whom are Roma, also remained a major concern. A large number of these children were considered Slovak citizens, even if they were born in the CzechRepublic and had no ties to Slovakia. Once released from state institutions at age eighteen, they have an undetermined legal status in the Czech Republic and face possible deportation. According to the Czech Helsinki Committee, there may be as many as 1,400 such children in Czech institutions today.

The Right to Monitor

The offices of the Czech Helsinki Committee were broken into in December by unknown individuals, who searched files and damaged the office. The police opened an investigation into the incident but, to date, no one has been charged. Otherwise, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was not aware of any interferences with the right to monitor in 1997.

The Role of the

International Community

Both the European Commission and the U.S. Helsinki Commission voiced serious concern over the continued negative impact of the citizenship law and urged the Czech Republic to repeal those sections that had a discriminatory impact on Roma. There was also strong international condemnation of attempts by local Czech authorities to encourage the emigration of Roma to Canada. Nonetheless, relations between the U.S. and the Czech Republic remained friendly, and the U.S. unequivocally supported the Czech Republic's admission into NATO. The E.U. was also sufficiently satisfied with the Czech Republic's performance to begin negotiations on membership in the E.U.

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