Czech Police to get new powers to disperse assemblies, spontaneous demonstrations will not have legal protection
The option of being able to hold a spontaneous public assembly without first announcing it to the authorities will not be enshrined in law as the Government previously proposed. The parameters for those entitled to announce such a public gathering to local authorities will also not be expanded, but police officers will be given new powers to disperse an assembly directly.
Restrictions will also be enacted to prevent those announcing assemblies from doing so in order to block access by others to a particular place and time. These are the consequences of a vote taken yesterday by the Czech lower house not to adopt the Senate's amendments to a bill changing the rules governing demonstrations.
The bill will now head to Czech President Miloš Zeman for signature in the form approved by the lower house. The Senate's proposals (now rejected) were an attempt to restore the original amendments to the law on assembly first submitted by the Government to the lower house.
The cabinet sought to legislate provisions regarding unplanned demonstrations so it would be possible for people to assemble as an immediate reaction to a just-unfolding, unanticipated event, such as the death of a significant figure or a terrorist attack, without fear of prosecution. The lower house, however, has removed that amendment from the bill because it is concerned such provisions could be abused.
Yesterday's vote confirmed the lower house's opinion. Czech MP Vlastimil Vozka (ANO), the rapporteur for the lower house, warned that the law's "innocent formulation" would make it possible for those who are opposed to views expressed by a particular assembly to spontaneously gather to counter-protest it, which poses the risk of unpredictable clashes.
"Those amendments would render the law useless," said the chair of the Constitutional Law Committee in the lower house, Czech MP Jeroným Tejc (Czech Social Democratic Party). The lower house has also asserted that assemblies cannot be announced by just anybody.
They have given their blessing to the current wording of the law regarding who is eligible to announce assemblies to the authorities, which says that public gatherings cannot be convened by foreign nationals or minors. The Senators argued that this restriction potentially contravenes the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Only 10 of the MPs present in the lower house yesterday voted for the Senate's version of the bill, with 138 opposed to it. The lower house's version was supported by 135 of the 171 MPs present in the lower house.
The bill especially changes the legal obligations placed on those who convene public assemblies, as well as the procedures to be taken by local authorities when they receive announcements of such public events. The Government's original bill also included a provision that would have given demonstrators the right to cover their faces under certain circumstances, but the lower house rejected that idea.
Covering one's face at a demonstration, therefore, will still be prohibited in the Czech Republic. Those who convene assemblies will be newly required to provide contact information for themselves so local authorities can reach them as quickly as possible if necessary.
Those convening assemblies will also be expressly obligated to be present at the assembly they announce. That change is aimed, among other things, at restricting the announcement of gatherings that are subsequently not held and that are actually just announced in order to block anybody else from accessing a particular public place at a particular time.
The amendments give local authorities the option of demarcating in precise detail the location of an assembly, its length, and other conditions in order to ensure public order. That particular change applies to cases in which more than one assembly is announced for the same place and time.
Currently, the law requires those convening assemblies to reach agreement among themselves as to how the space and time will be shared, and if they are unable to, then the local authorities may ban the assembly that was announced last. This amendment will now make it possible for local authorities to establish conditions for the conveners of pre-announced assemblies so it will be possible for multiple assemblies to simultaneously convene, for example, on one large square.
The amendments also clarify who is empowered to disperse an assembly. That right currently rests with local officials, but now police officers themselves will be empowered to disperse assemblies directly.
Moreover, the rules as adjusted by the lower house will make it possible for local authorities to insist that the location of a pre-announced assembly be changed entirely. Another change to the Government's original bill is a ban on demonstrations in the vicinity of the places where the legislative bodies hold their sessions.
Currently such demonstrations are permitted at a radius of 100 meters' distance from these locations. The specific streets in Prague where the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are located will now be specified in the law.
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