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Tear Down the Usti Wall, Drop the Charges against Ondrej Gina

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, in recent weeks, we have seen a number of historic dates come and go, with appropriate commemoration. November 9, for example, marked the tenth anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yesterday, November 17, is recognized as the commencement of the Velvet Revolution which unleashed the forces of democracy against the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. To mark that occasion, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and other former leaders from the day met with President Vaclav Havel in Prague.

Beyond the symbolism of those dates, they have had other meaning. Many of us had hoped that the wall in Usti nad Labem, Czech Republic, a symbol of racism, would be brought down on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Regrettably, November 9, came and went, and the Usti Wall still stood. We had hoped that the Usti Wall would come down on November 17. Some Czech officials even hinted this would be the case. Regrettably, November 17 has come and gone, and the Usti Wall still stands. Now, I understand some say the Usti Wall should come down before the European Union summit in Helsinki, scheduled for December 6.

Mr. Speaker, the Usti Wall should never have been built, and it should come down now, today. As President Reagan exhorted Mr. Gorbachev more than ten years ago, so I will call on Czech leaders today: Tear down the Usti Wall. Last fall, a delegation from the Council of Europe visited Usti nad Labem. Afterwards, the Chairwoman of the Council’s Specialist Group on Roma, Josephine Verspaget, held a press conference in Prague when she called the plans to build the Usti Wall “:a step towards apartheid.” Subsequently, the United States delegation to the OSCE’s annual human rights meeting in Warsaw publicly echoed those views.

Since the construction of the Usti Wall, this sentiment has been voiced, in even stronger terms, by Ondrej Gina, a well-known Romani activist in the Czech Republic. He is now being prosecuted by officials in his home town of Rokycany, who object to Gina’s criticisms. The criminal charges against Mr. Gina include slander, assault on a public official, and incitement to racial hatred. In short, Mr. Gina is being persecuted because public officials in Rokycany do not like his controversial opinions. They object to Mr. Gina’s also using the word “apartheid.” I can certainly understand that the word “apartheid” makes people feel uncomfortable. It is an ugly word describing an ugly practice. At the same time, if the offended officials want to increase their comfort level, it seems to me that tearing down the Usti Wall, not prosecuting Ondrej Gina, would be a more sensible way to achieve that goal. As it stands, Mr. Gina faces criminal charges because he exercised his freedom of expression. If he is convicted, he will become an international cause célebre. If he goes to jail under these charges, he will be a prisoner of conscience.

Mr. Speaker, it is not unusual for discussions of racial issues in the United States to become heated. These are important, complex, difficult issues, and people often feel passionate about them. But prosecuting people for their views on race relations cannot advance the dialogue we seek to have. With a view to that dialogue, as difficult as it may be, I hope officials in Rokycany will drop their efforts to prosecute Mr. Gina.

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