WASHINGTON – “The wall in Usti nad Labem is a symbol of intolerance and racism against Roma that cannot be allowed to stand in today’s Europe,” said Commission Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), following the construction of a wall between Roma and non-Roma residents in the Czech city of Usti nad Labem on Wednesday (October 13).
“The human rights situation in the Czech Republic has taken an alarming turn for the worse.” Plans to build the wall between Roma and non-Roma residents on Maticni Street were announced in May 1998 by Usti Mayor Ladislav Hruska, a member of Vaclav Klaus’ Civic Democratic Party. Since then, the wall has been the subject of intense criticism by non-governmental human rights organizations and representatives of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the Council of Europe. In May 1999, the Czech Cabinet adopted a resolution opposing the wall, but took no decisive action to prevent it from being built.
Last week, efforts by municipal authorities to begin construction of the wall resulted in a temporary stalemate, as approximately 50 Romani demonstrators occupied the construction site. At 4:00 a.m. on October 13, police cordoned off the site and construction of the wall was hastily completed. On the evening of October 13, the Czech Chamber of Deputies adopted a resolution by a vote 100 to 58 opposing the wall, but local officials in Usti have remained defiant and say they will not remove it.
Chairman Smith continued, “I have been heartened by some of the improvements this year in the human rights situation for Czech Republic’s Romani minority, especially the change in the Czech citizenship law. I regret that Czech officials have allowed this controversy to escalate to these proportions. As long as this crisis persists, the Usti wall will erode the Czech Republic’s international standing and cast a shadow over U.S.-Czech relations. Dialogue on many other issues of mutual interest will inevitably share the agenda with the wall in Usti. These developments certainly undermine the credibility of those who have argued that Romani asylum seekers from the Czech Republic do not have a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Ranking Commission Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) added: “Last year, during the debate on NATO expansion, I supported the admission of the Czech Republic. I noted there were issues of concern there, including discrimination against the Romani minority. At the same time, I stated my belief that Czech leaders were committed to resolving these problems. I certainly expected to see an improvement with respect to those problems — not their escalation. Today, I want to voice my profound concern about the wall in Usti nad Labem. I urge every leader of every Czech political party to voice his unequivocal opposition to this symbol of racism.”
“It reportedly took an 80-member police cordon to enable this wall to be built,” observed Ranking Commissioner Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD). “But human rights activists have long vowed to take sledge hammers to any wall there. Is there going to be a permanent police presence in Usti to maintain this wall? This is just not normal.”