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Commission Chairman Praises Czech Government Decision

WASHINGTON – “I commend the courage and leadership of the Czech cabinet which voted yesterday to block plans by local officials in Usti nad Labem to build a Romani ghetto,” said Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ).

“Usti nad Labem — a city that could be famous for its potential as a tourist attraction — has instead become the symbol of the rampant racism that plagues Europe’s Romani minority.” The cabinet vote was taken after local officials in Usti nad Labem received a building permit to construct a wall to divide Romani from ethnic Czech townspeople.

“Last year, the international community was shocked by stories coming from the Czech Republic. In two separate cities, Usti nad Labem and Pilsen, local officials proposed building walls that would create de facto ghettos. Insidious euphemisms like ‘social hygiene measure,’ reminiscent of Nazi terminology, were used to describe the wall and Roma were referenced as ‘asocial.’ In a setting like this, it is understandable why thousands of Czech Roma have sought refugee status in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

“Officials in Pilsen quickly dropped these plans. Regrettably, officials in Usti have held their ground and, for a year now, this issue has dogged the homeland of Vaclav Havel, one of the world’s most respected human rights leaders.

“The reaction to the original plans from the international community was swift and predictable. Voices from around the world condemned the Usti plans: the U.N. Committee Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination demanded an explanation from the Czech Government; Josephine Verspaget, the Chairwoman of the Council of Europe’s Specialist Group on Romani Issues, condemned the planned wall as ‘a step towards apartheid;’ journalists and human rights activists flocked to Usti, an historic city embraced by picturesque mountains, to see the three modest, Romani-inhabited apartment buildings which the proposed wall would enclose.”

Many Czech leaders immediately condemned plans for the wall. Jan Urban, from the Freedom Union party, declared that the wall was unacceptable in a democratic society and pledged that he would do everything he could to prevent the wall from being built. President Havel has visited the site of the proposed wall and repeatedly condemned the plan. Petr Uhl, a dissident who spent years in prison for standing up to the Communists and now serves as the government’s point-man for human rights, has likewise stood firm against the wall.

Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous addressed the OSCE at a November 1998 human rights meeting and, responding to criticism of the proposed wall raised by the U.S. delegation to the meeting, assured the OSCE participating States that the Czech Government had “found the segregationist approach in this particular case absolutely unacceptable.”

Similarly, Mr. Palous assured Representative Smith and Ranking Member Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), in a meeting in January that the Czech Government would not allow a ghetto to be built in Usti nad Labem. “Yesterday’s strong position taken by the Czech Government should be commended,” continued Smith. “I recognize the courage needed to take such a principled position. I am hopeful, though, that his leadership reflects the commitment in Czech society to reconcile inter-ethnic differences in a manner consistent with international norms and the highest respect for human rights. “In the event that the local Usti officials persist with their plans, it is possible the Czech parliament will schedule further consideration of this matter. Hopefully, that body will show the same courage and moral leadership that the Czech cabinet displayed yesterday.”

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