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Canadian asylum authority issues report on Roma and the Czech Republic

Prague/Ottawa, 3.7.2009 8:06, (ROMEA)

A June document issued by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) primarily shows the differences in opinion between the Czech authorities and Czech non-governmental organizations regarding the quality of protection for the Roma minority in the Czech Republic. The material serves the board as a resource for background information when deciding whether to grant asylum requests. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who earlier this week threatened the possibility of reinstating a visa regime, recently said on the basis of the document that the Roma are not discriminated against in the Czech Republic.

Canada has threatened Prague with the possibility that visas may again be introduced for Czech citizens due to the rising number of asylum seekers from the Czech Republic, most of them ethnic Roma. Kenney recently met in Prague with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout and Interior Minister Martin Pecina on the situation.

The June IRB document was interpreted in the Canadian media as saying that even though the Roma encounter difficulties in the Czech Republic, the government is doing what it can to improve their economic situation and legal position. However, several human rights defenders have rejected that interpretation in an open letter. In their view, Kenney fails to grasp and the report fails to adequately describe the fact that “the Czech justice system fosters an atmosphere of impunity for the ‘non-state actors’ who are violently harassing the Roma, as well as for local-level officials whose decisions have contributed to the persecution of Roma.”

The report was written on the basis of a March visit by the IRB to the Czech Republic to conduct interviews and describes the approach of the police, the courts and the ombudsman to the Roma and to crimes motivated by racial hatred or extremism. However, the report often simply does no more than list the differing opinions of various experts one after another.

In the section on extremist demonstrations, for example, Miroslav Mareš of Masaryk University in Brno is cited as claiming the police approach to racially motivated anti-Roma demonstrations is, in principle, adequate. One paragraph later, a representative of the Czech Helsinki Committee says police are not responding to these demonstrations appropriately.

Police are quoted as complaining in the report that the Roma often do not want to cooperate with criminal investigations. On the other hand, non-governmental organizations are quoted as drawing attention to the fact that the Roma are generally perceived negatively by police officers, who take a disrespectful, discriminatory approach to them.

The report also quotes Czech Ombudsman Otakar Motejl as saying he has never received a formal complaint from a member of the Roma minority concerning police behavior. Motejl did say he was familiar with complaints of non-governmental organizations and individuals claiming to have been harassed by police officers, but said he was unable to take action without a formal document to base his investigation on. The open letter, which was signed by former Czech Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl and former Czech Deputy Ombudsman Anna Šabatová, among others, claims the IRB report contains few critical voices concerning the police and the justice system.

The full text of the open letter is below:

1 July 2009

Open Letter

to Fred Kuntz, Editor, The Toronto Star

to Canadian Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney

Dear Mr. Kuntz, Dear Minister Kenney,

We are writing to protest the tone and the very misleading headline of the June 24 article entitled “Plight of Roma improved in Czech Republic: report”.

We have seen the Immigration and Refugee Board report which the article claims to summarize. We believe your interpretation of the information presented in that report is misleading. We also have several criticisms of the report itself.

The article claims that “a national ombudsman has been appointed to advocate on [the Roma’s] behalf”. This is misleading. The Czech ombudsman (the Public Defender of Rights) was not appointed to advocate specifically for the Roma, but to investigate claims of maladministration filed by anyone in the country. A new law passed only this month has granted him the power to assist victims of discrimination, including racial discrimination, but not exclusively Romani victims. The office continues to have no enforcement powers and the ombudsman’s previous analyses of many instances of illegal behavior committed by the state administration against the Roma have been simply ignored by the authorities and the courts. To give just one example, in 2006 the ombudsman sent the documentation for some of the more than 80 cases of Romani women who were forcibly sterilized to the state attorney on suspicion that a crime had been committed. However, the state attorney shelved the cases and found them not to have constituted crimes. The police, therefore, have not investigated further.

Minister Kenney is quoted in the article as saying the Czech state is innocent of ‘sanctioning’ the persecution the Roma face. What he fails to grasp, because the report fails to describe it adequately, is that the Czech justice system fosters an atmosphere of impunity for the ‘non-state actors’ who are violently harassing the Roma, as well as for local-level officials whose decisions have contributed to the persecution of Roma. The decision of Roma families to leave the country is influenced by this atmosphere. It is totally misleading to claim that ‘the justice system is on [the Roma’s side]’ – indeed, this is a strange claim to make of any justice system, as such systems are supposed to be impartial. Again, to give just one example, the prosecutions currently underway regarding last fall’s attempted pogroms against the Roma community in Janov are being conducted in a manner that is not satisfactory. Roma people who allegedly made racist statements to the neo-Nazis are being charged with crimes, but non-Roma people who have been captured on video making equally racist statements to the Roma – and who additionally were inciting and encouraging the neo-Nazis to commit violence – are not being charged with any crimes.

It is unfortunate that whoever compiled the report interviewed only one expert on neo-Nazi extremism in the country. There are many critiques available of the police response to neo-Nazi violence in the Czech Republic that do not support the view that the police response is or has been ‘generally adequate’. Critics of the police and the justice system in general are underrepresented among those interviewed. The background documentation for the report also does not reference any of the extensive human rights reporting on the Czech Republic conducted by the European Roma Rights Centre, the European Network against Racism, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, or any of the recommendations made to the Czech Republic by UN human rights treaty oversight bodies or the Council of Europe, including key European Court for Human Rights decisions against the country. It also does not reference any of the investigative journalism conducted by the Romea.cz server.

Lastly, it is extremely misleading of Minister Kenney to claim that the IRB report, as compiled, could be used to counter, for example, a refugee’s police brutality claim. If an individual asylum seeker is able to document such brutality, it is to be hoped that the IRB will review the facts of that particular case, not rely on a report that is based on researchers who spent a mere seven days in the country. Indeed, the report’s own disclaimer says it is not meant to be “conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.”

Minister Kenney, several of the undersigned addressed a letter on these issues to you in April of this year, to which we never received a response. In that letter, we reminded you that the Canadian Federal Court of Appeals has, in a case concerning Romani asylum seekers from Hungary, previously deemed illegal the actions of the Canadian government in attempting to influence asylum proceedings by applying a test case response which effectively decided hundreds of individuals’ cases at once. We again urge you to refrain from making statements in the press with respect to the Roma as a group or from taking decisions which would endanger the principle that asylum seekers’ claims should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

We are very interested in further communications with the Canadian authorities on these matters and hope to hear from them shortly.

Sincerely,

Gwendolyn Albert, Director, Women’s InitiativesPeacework Development Fund – Prague

Petr Uhl, former Czech Government Human Rights and Minorities Commissioner (1998 - 2001) - Prague

Anna Šabatová, former deputy ombudsman (2001-2007) - Prague

Kateřina Hrubá and Edita Stejskalová,Z§vůle práva, o.s. – Prague

Rob Kushen,Managing Director, European Roma Rights Centre, Budapest

Paul St. Clair, Executive Director, Roma Community Centre – Toronto

William Bila, Toronto

Klára Kalibová, Prague

Jeff Hush, Prague

cc: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Ambassador of Canada to the Czech Republic Michael Calcott

Counselor Yvon Saint-Hilaire, Embassy of Canada

Scott Riedmann, Consul, U.S. Embassy, Prague

Erika Schlager, Senior International Legal Counsel, Helsinki Commission, Washington, DC

María Ochao-Llidó, Head of Migration and Roma Department, Council of Europe

Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, ROMEA, ROMEA, ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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