In unprecedented verdicts, two courts - one in Prague and the other in Hradec Kralove - sentenced two neo-Nazi skinheads to seven and thirteen years in prison respectively for violent attacks. Both have appealed and their cases will be ruled in higher courts, but the sentences were unusually high.
First, a court in Prague sent 23-year-old Frantisek Sobek to prison for seven years for assaulting two men and a pregnant woman in the centre of Prague in May 1999, after the Czech ice-hockey team's victory at the World Championships. The court based its ruling on the fact that Sobek had been sentenced several times for similar crimes, but always received only suspended sentences with a probation period. The judge said the suspended sentences had proved entirely ineffective.
And a skinhead in Hradec Kralove in Eastern Bohemia received 13 years in prison for murdering a Roma man at a discotheque. After a sharp exchange of words, Vlastimil Pechanec stabbed the Roma man in the abdomen. 30-year-old Ota Absolon died in hospital soon after, leaving behind two small children. Although Pechanec maintained that he had split from the skinhead movement six years ago, shortly afterwards a poem celebrating the killing was circulating among neo-Nazis. So why have the courts begun acting more strictly - was the question I put to Vaclav Trojan from the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly:
"I think the situation in the Czech Republic, especially in justice, has changed a bit, hopefully in a positive direction, it seems that the present government has more interest in solving racial crimes and the problems concerning xenophobic tendencies in the Czech society. Part of that is a more strong and more serious solution of racially motivated crimes. Unfortunately, years ago racially motivated crimes were not punished adequately. I don't think that this is the only thing which we can do now, I think that we should do much more, we should change the society, of course, it's a long-term problem, but the fact that justice in the Czech Republic is recognising racially motivated crimes with more respect, I appreciate."
Do you think now it could be a political pressure?
"I think it can be partially, because there was strong international pressure on the Czech Republic, especially because of the wave of migration of many Roma people asking for asylum in different countries because of racial struggles in the country, and I think part of this is really politically motivated. Unfortunately I think it's not even coming from inside of the society, it's rather an outside measure."
Can those high sentences prevent skinheads from committing more racially motivated crimes?
"I'm afraid that just to persecute some group usually does not help. I think that it's more important to create some kind of policy, some kind of a long-term action, education, to reduce skinheads' activities. Also, one of their motivations is coming from tensions in the society. The society is often pushing the Roma people outside of towns, creating ghettos and so on. I think all those things are bound together and we must step by step do something against the existing tensions we have in the country."
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