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Commentary: The vicious circle of arson investigations and verdicts

Prague, 14.12.2010 18:14, (ROMEA)

The courts in the Czech Republic are supposed to evaluate each case on its individual merits. If the court concludes a particular case is somehow different from others which might at first glance seem similar (or analogous, or even the same), it may decide that case should be given a different legal classification, and the punishment concerned may then also be of a different magnitude. Of course, the justice system as a state institution is supposed to be accountable to the public - in other words, no judge lives in a vacuum. The reasons for classifying an incident as constituting a particular crime and the subsequent punishment invoked must therefore be described convincingly and thoroughly if society is to take the justice system seriously. In the case of the Czech Republic, we can say the justice system must do this if it wants a reputation that earns society's respect.

Doubts about whether the Czech justice system deserves such respect cannot be avoided, especially when we look at how certain types of crimes have been handled by the police, the state prosecutor and the courts since the start of the 1990s. The specific crime I have in mind is Molotov cocktail attacks, but these doubts also concern racially motivated murders and attempted murders.

To put it mildly, the investigation and judging of these crimes seems almost random. In my opinion, the Vítkov arson attack was the first such case to be adequately investigated and appraised by the state prosecutor and the court. This is also why a group of 14 various activists, initiatives, and non-profit organizations concerned about minority issues called on the Supreme State Prosecutor a few days ago to complete investigations into arson attacks that police have either qualified as mere misdemeanors or have shelved. This call was raised out of the conviction that the completion of the investigations into these and other cases can serve to dissuade future perpetrators. Thanks to activist Markus Pape, who has long monitored the extremist scene and Molotov cocktail attacks in particular, the NGOs were able to list specific cases in need of investigation in their request.

In addition to rapid investigation and convictions, the length of sentencing is another element that can dissuade potential perpetrators from committing these crimes. Of course, the sentencing for racially motivated murders, attempted murders, or Molotov cocktail attacks in particular also varies widely.

Let's review the practice of the courts in the 1990s. On 23 September 1993, a group of "Landa kids" (skinheads who are fans of the singer Daniel Landa from the racist band Orlík) attacked four young Roma on the banks of the Otava river. Fleeing their assailants, the Roma jumped into the river. The racists prevented them from leaving the water and 17-year-old Tibor Danihel drowned. The court acquitted the majority of the original 18 defendants. That verdict was overturned and a new investigation brought four defendants to court, although not for murder - they got off with suspended sentences. It was not until 1998 that the court reclassified the case as racially motivated murder. The final sentences handed down by the High Court for racially motivated murder were as follows: Jaroslav Churáček - eight years, three months; Zdeněk Habich - seven and a half years; Martin Pomije - six and a half years. At the time, courts customarily handed down sentences of between 15 years to as many as 20 years (in exceptional cases) for murder - that is, when the victims were not Roma.

During the 1990s, such laughable sentences were mainly handed down when the victims were "just" Roma - the victims of "our" Czech boys, who are decent and good, and whose lives should not be ruined over one "mistake". The justice system and police thereby introduced a strange category of punishments in this country. When the perpetrators of serious violent crimes repeatedly left court with suspended sentences, this constituted an indirect punishment of their victims, who were foreigners (migrant laborers and refugees), homeless people, the ideological rivals of those committing the violence (anarchists and human rights activists), people from various subcultures (punks, skateboarders), or Roma. Deviant recidivists appearing in court for the third (fourth, fifth) time would receive suspended sentences for racially motivated violent attacks and would go on to attack yet another foreigner or Roma person. What did they have to fear?

It was very difficult to achieve the first adequate sentences for these crimes in the Czech justice system. It took many appeals in many cases, and many complaints were filed with the Czech Justice Ministry. These sentences were also achieved thanks to the fact that some judges and state prosecutors were themselves willing to seek justice. It was not until the sentencing of the neo-Nazi racists who tried to murder an eight-member Roma family in Vítkov with Molotov cocktails that these kinds of crimes were rewarded with the punishment they deserve. For a brief moment, it seemed the Czech justice system had stopped fumbling around and was heading in the direction of a stricter interpretation of these crimes than in the past, which of course implied these crimes might receive sentences more in line with those handed down in other European countries or the United States.

What is more, this does not only concern racially motivated crimes. The laxity of the police and justice system may have begun with such crimes in the 1990s, but today we very often see the same measure taken of ordinary violent crimes (without racial motivation). Irrespective of the perpetrator's motivation, a Molotov cocktail attack on a place where people are present is attempted murder (unless it results in murder, of course). This concerns the recent case of Opava, the investigation of which has not been completed (police claim one of the suspects in that Molotov cocktail case -a charge still unproven - is a local Roma man). The fact that all of the victims in these cases where the investigations have not been completed are Roma prompts the question as to whether the police are truly impartial investigators.

This also concerns the case of the Bedřiška settlement in Ostrava. According to the charges, ethnic Czechs (a mother and son) threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of a duplex occupied by a Roma family, but the police and the court considered the motivation here to have been a dispute between the neighbors, not racism. The son has been given a three-year suspended sentence by the Regional Court in Ostrava for attempted reckless endangerment. The mother has been given 18 months for failing to prevent her son from throwing the bottle.

In this country, racially motivated crimes are correctly considered to require more severe punishment than crimes committed for other reasons. It could therefore be expected that throwing a Molotov cocktail to settle a dispute with your neighbor will get you a lower sentence than the one given the Vítkov arsonists - let's say, something between 15 and 18 years. Of course, what we have seen in this case are suspended sentences, so we have found ourselves back at the start of the vicious circle in which suspended sentences were almost always handed down for such crimes. From this point of view, every exception which is adequate but not made further use of by the courts - such as that of the Vítkov verdicts - can seem deceptively exemplary.

"The intent to cause death was not successfully proven. The intent was to start a fire. That is why it seemed more appropriate to us to change the legal qualification to attempted reckless endangerment," the judge said when handing down the Bedřiška verdict. Here we must recall that the Molotov cocktail thrown into the home contained ether, not only one of the most dangerous flammable materials of all, but also a material capable of knocking the victims unconscious. We should also recall that the bottle was thrown into the home at a time when its occupants were asleep. It was pure chance that the daughter of the family woke up and managed to put out the fire before the bottle exploded. The judge evidently took none of this into account.

At the time of the attack there were 14 people total in the duplex. One of the victims, Dušan Podraný, understandably does not agree with the verdict: "We could have been burned alive, there is no doubt it was attempted murder... She gets to yell 'Let the blacks burn' at us and then they let her go home? That just will not do… It is not good she's coming home. My wife will never forgive her. It's not going to go well." Podraný added that if the convicted woman really does return to live in the settlement, he will ask the leadership of the town district of Mariánské Hory and Hulváky to arrange for a relocation: "Either her family, or ours.“

"The first-instance verdict in the case of the arson attack on the family in Ostrava's Bedřiška settlement is a clear signal to all arsonists in this country: You can throw a grenade into a family's home as long as it doesn't explode. This is a return to the bad old days," Markus Pape told news server Romea.cz. In his view, the Ostrava judge did not sufficiently appreciate the efforts of the police and state prosecutor to newly define the danger to society of such arson attacks on children. "This verdict not only violates human rights, it mainly violates the rights of children to their lives and security," Pape said. He is right.

High sentences for those who commit these crimes, irrespective of whether they are adults, children or youth, should not be ruled out. A description of this issue shows these crimes begin as juvenile offenses. A good example of this is the case of a racist attack perpetrated on a 12-year-old non-Roma boy by two Roma boys in the town of Krupka, one of them a minor (under 15) and one a juvenile (16 years old).

The 12-year-old living at the children's home in Duchcov was traveling to visit his mother in Ústí nad Labem when he was stopped at the Bohosudovské train station in Krupka by the two young Roma boys. They wanted him to give them either his mobile phone or his money. When he told them he didn't have either, they searched him, took his coat and shoes, and carried him into a nearby forest. The charges say they forced him to give them oral sex and then brutally beat him, kicking him and humiliating him. The charges say the perpetrators asked the victim whether he knew "what Hitler did during the war with Gypsies in the concentration camps. They were going to do the same to him now." The severely injured boy managed to crawl back to the station, where those who found him called an ambulance. He ended up in the intensive care unit. He had one broken and one twisted rib, lacerations of the spleen, bruised kidneys, liver and pancreas, lacerations to his head and bruises all over his body. (The ROMEA association has offered to find the victim legal aid.)

The court agreed with all of the charges brought, which in addition to the brutal beating included sexual abuse, rape, theft, and extortion. Moreover, the court correctly reclassified the crime as conspiracy to commit attempted murder, which carries higher sentencing. As the news server iDNES.cz reported, it came to light during the investigation that the 16-year-old assailant is illiterate. He had been unmanageable as a child and had previously committed robbery and theft, but had escaped punishment because he was a minor. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for the attack in Krupka.

His minor accomplice could not be sentenced, because children under 15 in this country are not legally responsible for their actions. That person has been placed in a rehabilitation facility in Chrastav. This institution is already doing its best to get rid of him, because he is a source of constant conflict and problems. As iDNES.cz reports, his character is probably best described by the statement he gave about the beaten 12-year-old, who has not yet recovered from the brutal attack and is on anti-depressants today: "We should have killed him. Then we wouldn't have had to run around to all the courts like this."

I believe it is time to start a discussion on changes in this regard. Violence as a commonplace grows in proportion to the degree a society takes it lightly. The points I would like to discuss are:

Should we make it possible for judges to sentence juveniles to the same punishment as adults for the same crimes?

Could these matters be helped by establishing detention facilities - de facto prisons - for children and youth? Recently Czech Education Minister Josef Dobeš of the Public Affairs party revived this idea. His considerations were prompted by the "last straw" of a case from Ostrava in which a 16-year-old ethnic Czech stabbed three boys aged 9, 13 and 14.

Could it be beneficial to lower the age limit for criminal liability in the case of serious felonies? Should the option be introduced to limit incarceration according to the perpetrator's age? (For example: If a 13-year-old perpetrator commits murder, the court could sentences him to 13 years in prison; until he reaches the age of 15, the perpetrator would serve in a children's detention facility, between 15-18 in a juvenile detention facility, and after 18 in a regular prison.)

Repression in and of itself is naturally not a solution, and there can never be enough preventive social work programs. However, a certain type of perpetrator will never heed prevention measures because of his deviancy, emotional deprivation, fanaticism, narrow-mindedness or psychological deprivation. This is why it is more than necessary to seek an adequate way to protect society from such people.

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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