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August 10, 2022



† 13. 5. 1995: Tibor Berki

13.5.2019 19:26
The funeral of Tibor Berki, who was beaten to death on the night of 13 May 1995 by four Czech neo-Nazis using a baseball bat. (PHOTO: Archive)
The funeral of Tibor Berki, who was beaten to death on the night of 13 May 1995 by four Czech neo-Nazis using a baseball bat. (PHOTO: Archive)

The date was 13 May 1995. In Lety u Písku, Czech President Václav Havel was unveiling a memorial to the Romani people who died in the local concentration camp during the Second World War having been deprived of their lives by racist hatred and the violence associated with it.

On this occasion, not for the first time, Havel referenced the fact that the fates of Holocaust victims remain a permanent reminder to the rest of us of what the consequences of racism are. "I have spoken more than once about the fact that if we do not face up to racist evil at the moment of its apparently initial, innocent appearance, it will grow into a phenomenon that is truly dangerous, serious, and a threat to all of society. If we do not face up to it right away, we risk not being able to face it later on, or only being able to face it at the cost of more human lives.[...] Even today we can sometimes hear people calling for sending the "Gypsies to the gas chambers". Even today we can observe the indifference to these displays, the quiet support for those who shout them, the cowardly spectators, the renewal of divisions among people according to their ethnic origin. All of this must be faced up to again and again, because it is the time-tested rear guard of racism," he said (his full speech in English translation is here).

Violent thugs beat Romani man to death in front of his children

In the Czech town of Žďár nad Sázavou that very night something happened that was the direct embodiment of Havel's warning earlier that day at the Lety memorial. Violent thugs broke into a Romani family's home and murdered a father of five, Tibor Berki.

The attack happened at about 11:30 PM. Four racists between 17 and 21 years of age forcibly entered the abode and began demolishing its furniture and interior fixtures with a baseball bat they brought with them and an axe they happened to find there.

Berki, who owned the home, did his best to defend himself against the violent spree. One assailant repeatedly struck him with a baseball bat on the head and at the nape of his neck.

After being transported to hospital, Berki died of brain hemorrhage. He was beaten to death in the presence of his family members, including children.

"The one with the bat wanted to hit me too, but I ducked, so he just got me on the shoulder. I began shouting for help from the window. Fortunately, the neighbor living across from us immediately called an ambulance and police. If I had not shouted, they might have even killed the children," Berki's widow Anna said.

"Father began to defend himself with his bare hands, but he had no chance. The whole thing lasted about five minutes. The other one, who didn't have a bat, grabbed an axe with an iron shaft that was lying there in the kitchen and began to break up the furnishings. He chopped at everything with such disgust that splinters flew about. Then he swung in my direction, but I ducked. Then he went after my father," Berki's son Jaroslav described.

"Let's go get some Gypsies"

The ethnic affiliation of the family (who are Hungarian Roma) was decisive for the perpetrators. Berki did not personally know the assailants, who had been spotted in a pub before committing their crime agreeing to "go get some Gypsies".

Media at the time - unlike in previous cases involving racism - placed emphasis in their reporting on the fact that according to the opinions expressed by the family's neighbors, the police, the regional prosecutor and representatives of the local authority, the family was a respectable one. Berki was said to have been a person who took care of his family, who had a job (he worked in a bakery) and who had no criminal record.

Benevolence for the perpetrators

Czech society in those days approached the perpetrators of crimes motivated by racism with benevolence, more or less, and the approach taken by the justice system, police and politicians toward previous such crimes motivated by racism had been very half-hearted. That was also reflected in the court decisions in this case, while the approach taken by lawmakers and ministers slightly improved as a consequence of Berki's murder.

"Judges, prosecutors and police are informing us that the skinheads are from 'good families' and that this was just a children's game. However, if a Romani boy steals something, the child is never spoken of as coming from a 'good family'," said Jana Chalupová, who at the time led the Public Relations Department at the Office of the President of the Czech Republic (see the Human Rights Watch report at the time, Roma in the Czech Republic: Foreigners in Their Own Land).

A matter of Czech democracy

"The death of Berki, whose brain was beaten out of his skull in front of his own children by skinheads, is a matter of Czech democracy. If anybody feels the comparison is too much, they should imagine 'whites' being in the minority here and non-Gypsy heads being cracked with baseball bats," the sociologist Ivan Gabal commented at the time.

In the annual Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic for 1995 we can read the following: "In the Czech Republic protection for Romani people against discrimination and racist violence is not yet being provided, and in recent years such actions have been significantly on the rise, resulting in fatalities and serious, permanent injuries. The obligation to protect minorities from racially-motivated violent assault is not being fulfilled by the state units authorized to use force, nor is it being fulfilled by means of prevention, whether in terms of security or education. The state has a tendency not to respond until such actions reach the level of racist violence, customarily through verbal declarations and the judicial system, not through an active policy of prevention."

Epilogue: This murder, they say, was not racist

Perpetrator Zdeněk Podrázský, who was 21 years old at the time, was accused of felony murder, trespassing and violence against a group. Perpetrators Martin Komár and Jan Nevole, who were 17, were charged with trespassing and violence against a group.

Perpetrator Jan Vosmech, also 17, turned himself into police several days after the attack. Komár and Podrázský were taken into custody and remained there during the investigation and prosecution.

The prosecutor sought the highest possible punishment for an assault motivated by racism. Despite that fact, the first-instance court decided that racial motivation could not be demonstrated in this case because during the attack itself, the perpetrators never shouted any derogatory, racist slogans.

The Regional Court in Brno sentenced Podrázský on 13 December 1995 to 12 years in maximum-security prison and ordered him to pay CZK 22 876 [EUR 900] to the health insurer. Komár was then sentenced to 19 months in a prison with minimum supervision, while Nevole got six months and Vosmech two months, both conditionally suspended for one year.

On the basis of an appeal by the prosecutor, the High Court in Olomouc sentenced Podrázský on 23 May 1996 to 13 years in a maximum-security prison and Komár to 40 months in a prison with minimum supervision, but the other verdicts remained unchanged. In his appeals verdict, Justice Ivo Kouřil wrote that the perpetrators could not have attacked the Berki family because of their nationality and race because Romani people purportedly come from the same "Indo-European race" as Czechs.

Human rights activists and Romani activsts were outraged by the courts' decisions and made no secret of their concern that such verdicts set a dangerous precedent. Ondřej Giňa, a Romani community member and former staffer of the Office of the Czech Government on Nationality, said: "The court said this was not a murder motivated by racism. If the court is incapable of demonstrating racial motivation in such a brutal case, then in ordinary cases of somebody being assaulted on the street by a skinhead, the attacker can be convicted at the very most of mere assault."

Czech Government ministers and President Havel condemned Berki's murder. The Government proposed increasing the sentencing for violent crime motivated by racism, and that gave the impetus for establishing a new police department exclusively focused on extremism.

The Roma Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa - ROI) welcomed the decision by the ministers to more forcefully eliminate racially-motivated crimes and, along with other Romani organizations, proposed that the Government establish civil society controls over the fulfillment of that decision. "I welcomed that decision, even if it arrived too late - of course it would have been worse if it had never come at all, if the Government and others had behaved as they had done for the last four or five years, according to the motto 'this does not concern us, in our country these things don't happen'," ROI chair Emil Ščuka declared.

Giňa was also critical; according to him, "[Prime Minister] Klaus has ignored previous such cases and didn't speak up until after Berki was beaten to death. As a consequence, some legislative measures were adopted, but that was just about attempts to improve the work of the police, the prosecutors and the courts. The state did not show any effort to generally involve itself in this problem, but just focused on institutions and their work. It takes somebody dying for something to change. There are so many problems to which no attention is being paid at all here, though. The police and society overall remain passive."

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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