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Czech politician on trial for threatening Romani people

Louny, 23.8.2012 0:39, (ROMEA)

Petr Srkal of Louny has been brought to trial there on charges of using wooden shovel handles to pound on the door of a residential hotel occupied by Romani people and threaten them last September. Srkal explained his actions by saying he had been the victim of a mugging and had visited the residential hotel because the people living there had stolen his bicycle and mobile phone.

The court originally fined Srkal and sentenced him to community service. That punishment, however, seemed too light to the state prosecutor and Srkal is insisting on his innocence, so a full hearing has now been initiated.

"Someone was whooping it up out there, shouting 'Gypsies to the gas chambers!', 'Gypsies get to work!' I don't know who it was," a witness told the court, adding that her daughter had been so rattled by the night-time scene that she had not wanted to go to school the next day.

Srkal emphasized that he had been responding to a theft. He was outraged that the lawsuit describes the theft as a mere allegation. "The mobile phone was on me, I was the victim of a mugging. I went to the residential hotel for one reason only, to get my stuff back," he told the court. His girlfriend also confirmed to the court that Srkal had possession of the mobile phone shortly before the incident and used it to call her.

Judge Blanka Šišová has postponed the next hearing in the case until October. She wants to interrogate other witnesses as well, such as the man who fought with the drunken Srkal when he visited the residential hotel.

Police say Srkal repeatedly broke into the residential hotel, occupied mostly by Romani people, during the night and asked around for his bicycle and mobile phone, blaming the residents for its theft. He first broke the glass in the entrance doors and then, after brawling with a resident, was found lying in the street by police, who had to call an ambulance.

When Srkal visited the residential hotel a second time that night, he was armed with wooden shovel handles, a firefighter's helmet, and knee guards. He used the shovel handles to bang on the locked doors and demand his bicycle and mobile phone. Srkal also reported the theft of the unlocked bicycle from the vestibule of a restaurant to police, who charged him with rioting and detained him for several hours.

Srkal, who chairs the Severočeši.cz ("NorthBohemians.cz") party in Louny, then threatened to hold an anti-Romani demonstration. He never realized those intentions.

"The option of getting carried away on a wave of anti-Romani sentiment is immeasurably tempting," Mayor Kerner of Louny said at the time, adding that such an incident would have categorized Louny as among the country's troubled localities, a reputation it does not deserve, in his view. "The level of crime in our town is several orders of magnitude lower than it is in some towns in North Bohemia, and the same goes for what are the rather peaceful mutual relations between ethnic groups here - or at least, that's what it used to be like," the mayor said.

The tabloid press reported on the whole incident and several other media outlets reprinted their reports. The news was reported with an anti-Romani slant, never mentioning Srkal's repeated attacks on the residential hotel and never actually proving that Romani people were responsible for the theft (or that if the muggers were Romani, that they lived at the residential hotel). Instead, the papers reported the opinions of the drunken Srkal as if they were the only truth of the matter.

For example, the tabloid Blesk.cz wrote that "the situation in north Bohemia is still very tense. Not only are children, pensioners, and ordinary passers-by being targeted for attack, but now even politicians are. The chair of the Severočeši.cz political party has evidently become the first public official to be attacked by local Romani people."

Blesk's report was reprinted by news server Eurozprávy.cz, which augmented it with the following emotive claims: "Petr Srkal had to walk home on foot from a meeting that had just finished because an unidentified perpetrator stole his bicycle. As he passed down Husova street, he was talking on the phone with his girlfriend when a couple suddenly blocked his way. Srkal said the Romani man struck the mobile phone from his hand and the Romani woman picked it up. Undaunted, the politician refused to be scared off. He went to the Romani residential hotel to get his mobile phone back but encountered great resistance there, with local Romani residents throwing him through the glass entrance door. Srkal had to seek medical attention as a result. By all indications he suffered a concussion and open cuts on various parts of his body. As he himself said in a video statement he recorded for the public, he then walked 25 km on foot from Žatec to the scene of the crime and attempted to get his property back."

Another tabloid, Parlamentní listy, quoted the well-known racist Czech Senator Jaroslav Doubrava (also a member of Severočeši.cz) as saying the following on the basis of this one-sided, unverified information: "This seems almost unbelievable to me. How is it possible that the majority of mainstream citizens are ignoring these incidents and letting things get to the absurd situation of being threatened by a minority?"

It was only news server Deník.cz that put Strkal's "informace" into a larger context: "Evidently drunk, wearing a firefighter's uniform and armed with wooden shovel handles, Srka went to settle accounts with the Romani people whom he believed had stolen his bicycle and mobile phone. He then recorded a video about the whole incident and posted it online. His version of events, however, has been clarified by police, who have charged Srkal with rioting."

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, iDNES.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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