WASHINGTON – Meeting with Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous in Washington last evening, Commissioners Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) praised the Government of the Czech Republic for standing firm against municipal plans in the village of Usti nad Labem to wall off Roma, for plans to resolve long-standing problems of statelessness for Roma and discrimination against Czech Americans in the Czech property restitution/compensation law, and for allowing the Radio Farsi/Radio Free Iraq station to be placed in the Czech Republic.
They also discussed regional security issues, including the crisis in Kosovo. At the same time, they underscored the need for Czech leaders to condemn the wave of anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner violence that plagues the Czech Republic.
Following the meeting, Smith welcomed the many positive messages brought to Washington by the Deputy Minister. Smith noted “I was deeply gratified to learn that the Czech government has announced that it would block the construction of a wall in the village of Usti nad Labem that, if built, would effectively create a Roma ghetto. Such walls have no place in modern Europe. I hope this decision reflects a new and deeper political will on the part of the Czech Government to combat manifestations of xenophobia.”
Hoyer emphasized that “the key to this effort is a strong government reaction” when xenophobic attacks occur. “President Havel has, for too long, carried the burden of reacting to such acts. It is time for other Czech leaders, including Prime Minister Zeman, to be equally assertive in condemning hate crimes.” The Commissioners provided Deputy Prime Minister Palous with a list of recent xenophobic attacks, including one against Bob Joyce, a 61-year-old American teacher who was beaten unconscious in November for defending a Rom against skinhead harassment.
In a similar vein, they discussed the citizenship law of the Czech Republic which has left stateless thousands of Czech Roma who previously had Czechoslovak citizenship. “I was deeply heartened by my discussion with Mr. Palous on this issue,” said Smith. “Not only does there appear to be a fast-track timetable for moving legislation forward, but Mr. Palous has assured us of his government’s commitment to ensure that new citizenship procedures will not entail a lot of bureaucratic red tape.” Hoyer added, “the adoption of the new citizenship law, which Minister Palous said will permit dual citizenship, will also be a first step towards resolving the discrimination Czech Americans have faced in making claims for restitution or compensation for property that was wrongly taken from them by the previous Communist regime.”
The Commissioners and Mr. Palous also discussed the status of the Lety archives—the only known archives from a Roma concentration camp—and welcomed news that Mr. Palous had brought copies of one-third of the archives with him to deliver to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I am gratified that this moves towards fulfilling a pledge made to me over four years ago, and I hope that the remaining two-thirds of the archive copies will be delivered soon,” said Hoyer.
The Commissioners also urged Mr. Palous to seek the repeal of the Czech Republic’s Communist-era criminal defamation law. “Criminalizing people because of their criticism of the government, its offices or its personalities is simply contrary to international norms and contrary to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Hoyer. “Although President Havel pardons everyone who gets convicted under this law, what will happen when someone else becomes President?” asked Smith. “This is an unnecessary legacy of the Communist past.”