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Helsinki Commission Delegation Visits Prague and Bratislava
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law

Prior to participating in the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), the Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, led a Congressional delegation to Prague, the Czech Republic, from February 18-20. In Prague, he was joined by Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) and Congressman Michael McNulty (D-NY). Chairman Hastings also traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, for additional meetings on February 21, where he was joined by Commissioner Hilda L. Solis (D-CA).

In the Czech Republic, the delegation met with representatives of the Jewish community and toured the historic Jewish quarter in Prague, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The delegation discussed recent anti-Semitic manifestations, most notably a large demonstration organized last November on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and other planned demonstrations by extremists. Although Czech civil society has strongly countered these demonstrations, local officials have struggled to find the appropriate balance between respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and their desire to combat anti-Semitism and manifestations of other forms of intolerance.

The delegation also held a round-table discussion with leading civil society and Romani activists. Their discussions touched on past instances of sterilizing Romani women without informed consent, and discrimination against Roma in education, housing and employment. It was noted that victims of wrongful sterilization practices have been advised by government officials to seek redress from the courts, even though most cases will be barred by statutes of limitations.

The delegation held official meetings with the President of Senate, Premysl Sobotka, and other members of the Czech Senate; Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Kohout; representatives of the Government Council for Human Rights; and Otakar Motejl, the Public Defender of Rights (also known as the Ombudsman).

In these meetings, delegation members expressed concern about the unresolved property claims of Americans who were excluded by the legal framework for property restitution previously adopted by the Czech Republic. They urged Czech officials to protect freedom of speech and assembly, while demonstrating sensitivity for dates or sites of particular importance to the Jewish community. With respect to the situation of the Romani minority, the delegation expressed concern for the victims of past sterilization without informed consent. They urged the Czech Government to take concrete steps to improve the situation of Roma, including through the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. Discussions with Czech officials also touched on bilateral or regional issues, including Kosovo’s declaration of independence and managing relations with Russia.

While in Prague, the delegation also met with President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Jeffrey Gedman, toured the broadcasting facility, and held a press conference at the RFE/RL headquarters.

In Slovakia, Chairman Hastings and Commissioner Solis met with leading political analysts to hear a broad discussion of political developments and trends, including concerns regarding proposed legislation on non-governmental organizations and on the media. During a round-table discussion with Romani activists, participants discussed the need to translate the government’s program into concrete action, and the particular challenge of translating national policies into change at the local level.

The delegation also met with Foreign Minister Jan Kubis, Deputy Prime Minister Dusan Caplovic (who has responsibility for, i.a., human rights issues), and a group of parliamentarians, including representatives of opposition parties. In their meeting with Minister Caplovic, Chairman Hastings urged the Slovak Government to acknowledge the past sterilization without informed consent of Romani women. In other meetings, the delegation also expressed concern about the adoption by the parliament of resolution honoring Andreij Hlinka, who died in 1938 but whose nationalist leadership set the stage for Slovakia’s WWII alliance with Nazi Germany and the deportation of its Jewish citizens.

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