Analysis: Czech court convicts neo-Nazis as an organized group for the first time in history
Over the past three years we have regularly reported on the case of neo-Nazis from the Czech faction of the Blood & Honour organization who have been indicted for that activity (see here, here and here). This analysis is a summary of the development of this case so far, which has just produced its first verdict: Most of those indicted have been convicted as members of an organized group.
What's worse? When the pawns of these groups set families on fire in their homes at night, or when their boss publicly, regularly encourages such attacks throughout the country?
The answer to that question was deliberated for an entire year by the Regional Court in Plzeň. Ultimately the court decided that it is worse to directly participate in a violent action.
In mid-December of last year a first instance verdict was handed down in the case of the Czech branch of the international neo-Nazi group Blood & Honour. If that verdict survives the appeal proceeding at the High Court in Prague, it may become a precedent.
The verdict represents the very first time a Czech court has convicted neo-Nazis as an organized group in connection with a serious violent crime. Such a result was not delivered by the verdict in the case of the arson attack in Vítkov in April 2009, nor has it ever been achieved for any other group attack committed by neo-Nazis in the past.
There have been quite a few of those attacks for the courts to rule on. Let's recall, for example, the neo-Nazi group who hunted Romani people in the town of Písek in 1993, which ended with the drowning of the young Tibor Danihel, or the "hot autumn" of 2009.
At that time a group from South Bohemia calling itself "White Justice" brutally raged for hours through the center of the town of Benešov, injuring a skateboarder whom they considered an "anarchist" so severely that he lost his spleen. In the town of Havířov, a group of young neo-Nazis drove around to various neighborhoods in cars and persecuted local Romani people there, almost killing one youth.
Before that, during the "battle of Janov" in the town of Litvínov in November 2008, dozens of police officers were injured. All of these were demonstrably organized events - but detectives did not succeed in catching the organizers, i.e., none of those who established, promoted or supported the groups organizing these actions.
When the Regional Court in Plzeň anounced in October to those involved in the proceedings that the verdict would be announced in December, it warned them that it might take hours to read the whole thing. That is exactly how it turned out.
Even though the main crime - the arson attack in the West Bohemian town of Aš in February 2012 - was demonstrably perpetrated by just two men, a total of nine persons from various parts of the country were charged and subsequently prosecuted, most of them for establishing, promoting and supporting a neo-Nazis group by producing or selling clothing or music promoting Nazism.
According to the Regional State Prosecutor overseeing the investigation by the Organized Crime Detection Unit, the organized group had already been under intense surveillance before the attack. The prosecutor said, however, that never managed to demonstrate that the group directed the arson attack.
Three of the defendants were sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole by Plzeň Regional Court Judge Martin Kantor. Those convicted of reckless endangerment in connection with attempted murder by arson were Tomáš Kopecký (25 years old), and Michal P. (35 years old), both from Aš, and were sentenced to six years and nine months in a maximum-security prison.
Jan B. of Prague (25 years old), the alleged boss of the organized group, whom the court believes established and led it, was sentenced to three years and eight months. The other defendants, with one exception, were given suspended sentences, either for their active membership in the group or for supporting it.
The verdict has yet to take effect, but it requires two of them to pay compensation to the owners of buildings in the town of Mariánské Lázně which they spray-painted with Nazi symbols during another nighttime action. Petr H., the owner of an advertising firm in Sokolov, who according to the prosecutor was commissioned by Jan B. to produce items with Nazi and racist motifs and symbols and delivered them to him, has been fully acquitted.
Only a small amount of goods delivered were at issue. The judge said it had not been sufficiently proven which slogans were on the t-shirts supplied to Jan B.
Both of the arsonists in the case had faced maximum sentences of 20 years or the possibility of extraordinary sentencing. Those longer prison sentences, however, seemed too much to the court.
The defendants, in the judge's view, had committed their crime during a certain phase of their lives when they had neo-Nazi tendencies. That phase allegedly did not last long, and according to the court the defendants today have abandoned such positions.
As the judge summarized, the defendants have distanced themselves from a dangerous ideology and are properly employed, so their imprisonment should just be a punishment, not a "social execution". On the other hand, the defendants did mutually agree to perform the crime, carefully prepared for it, and then executed their plan.
After ascertaining that the fire they started had been immediately put out by the tenants of the building and that therefore no great harm had occurred to anyone, the defendants expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome through SMS messages. The judge said that the punishment that has now been handed down is significantly beneath the lawful sentencing limit permitted for these crimes.
Since the defendants had committed a crime that requires a minimum five-year prison sentence, the court could not conditionally postpone their sentencing. What, though, does criminal membership in an organized group mean?
Only four defendants were ultimately convicted as members of an organized group. They were Jan B.; his common-law wife Petra L., who participated in writing articles for the group's website and personally maintained contact with the Aš branch; and Tomáš Kopecký and Bohuslav M. both of Aš, who the court said committed the nighttime "spray-painting" action together, paid or collected membership fees, and sent articles they had authored to the organization's website (which were never published).
The other defendants knew about the organization, actively supported it, and communicated with the group leader. However, because their activities did not go beyond what constitutes a regular ideologically-colored friendship, they could not be considered members of the organized group.
As we have noted, the verdict has not yet taken effect. Kopecký's legal representative appealed it on the sport, while the attorneys for the other defendants and the prosecutor are still deciding whether to appeal, as is the attorney-in-fact for the victims, so the case will be reviewed by the High Court in Prague as well.
Three final notes
What is interesting about this verdict is that the attempted murder was, according to the court, only perpetrated against those in the ground-floor apartments of the residential hotel as the defendants presumed there were more people living there. This means that the victimized children, who at the time all lived on the upper floors of the building for the most part, could not be considered victims as far as the court was concerned, and therefore cannot seek compensation, including two-year-old Veronika M., who demonstrably inhaled smoke from the blaze and during the following day went into febrile convulsions that required several days of hospitalization.
It is also unusual that the arson attack constitutes two crimes, both attempted murder and reckless endangerment. During the reading of the verdict, the 2009 arson attack in Vítkov and its assessment by the courts was also mentioned.
When one of the defense attorneys objected that "nothing happened in Aš, after all", the judge responded by saying that it was "only thanks to God" that more fatal consequences had not occurred there. Just as in the assessment of Vítkov, the court here believed the Aš perpetrators' intentions were "indirect" - that means that while they did not directly want to kill anyone, they were aware that their behavior might cause someone's death and did nothing to prevent such an outcome.
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