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Roma Still Face Uphill Battle In Czech Republic

Prague, May 30 (RFE/RL) - Czechs go to the polls tomorrow amid fears by human rights activists that many of the country's Roma, or Gypsies, will be unable to vote because they lack citizenship.

Local human rights groups say a law enacted after the division of Czechoslovakia three years ago deprived thousands of Roma of Czech citizenship and, therefore, of the right to vote.

The human rights groups say up to 30,000 Roma in the Czech Republic have been left stateless. But government officials maintain the number is impossible to determine. Petr Dudek, at the Czech President's Office, says: "The figures given by human rights groups seem too high, but we don't have an exact number."

Last month the parliament amended the citizenship law, under intense international pressure from bodies such as the Council of Europe and the United States Congress.

But the positive changes apparently came too late to help many Roma believed to be disenfranchised in this weekend's election, the country's first since gaining independence in 1993.

While human rights groups say the revised law is a step in the right direction, they also say it may not go far enough to redress some of the wrongs that were committed over the past three years.

The original law required applicants for Czech citizenship to have a clean criminal record for five years. The provision was criticized for having a disproportionate impact on Roma, many of whom have criminal records, mostly for petty crimes. Moreover, the law attached additional penalties that did not exist when the crimes were committed.

More importantly, the law granted citizenship on the basis of parentage, not place of birth or residency. Many argued that it discriminated against Roma, the vast majority of whom migrated from Slovakia to the Czech lands after the Second World War.

Last month, two unlikely allies, parliament's sole Roma representative Ladislav Body and Jiri Payne of the ruling Civic Democratic Party, pushed through changes to the law. Under the new version, Ministry of Interior officials will be allowed to exempt applicants, on a case-by-case basis, from the clean criminal record requirement.

Body, who waged a three-year battle against the law, told RFE/RL in an interview that he was generally pleased with the changes. In his opinion, the amendments to the law were the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances. He said the government coalition agreed to make what he called a "compromise" because of intense pressure from abroad to relax the requirements for obtaining citizenship. According to Body, the new law could allow some 10,000 Roma to get Czech citizenship.

Past critics of the law are divided on whether the amendments, which give increased discretionary powers to individuals in the Interior Ministry, will be properly implemented.

Fred Abrahams of the U.S.-based human rights organization, Human Rights Watch-Helsinki, welcomed the changes, but said past evidence suggests the Ministry has not fairly administered the law.

The Council of Europe's Hans Nilsson told RFE/RL that the amendments are a positive step and create the possibility of correcting some of the previous problems with the law. He said the Council would continue to monitor developments and respond if any abuses are reported.

For their part, Czech government officials have expressed confidence that the law will be administered fairly. Hana Fristenka, who heads the government's Council for Nationalities, told RFE/RL that Ministry officials would "without a doubt" adhere to the spirit of the law.

Roma groups say the issue of citizenship is just one of many challenges they face. Alena Gronzikova, spokeswoman for the Roma Civic Initiative, says the new law is a "very positive step," but won't solve all Roma's problems. She says discrimination against Roma in housing, employment and education has become more widespread over the past five years.

The Czech Republic's unemployment rate of 3 percent is one of the lowest in Europe. But unemployment among Roma is much higher, with estimates ranging from 30 to 60 percent.

And the number of violent attacks on Roma has increased sharply since 1989. The independent Citizens' Solidarity and Tolerance Movement (HOST) recorded 80 racially-motivated attacks on Roma last year.

One such attack, last year's brutal murder of Tibor Berki, who was attacked by skinheads in his home in southern Moravia, attracted considerable media attention and prompted the government to impose stricter penalties for racially-motivated crimes. A court last week ruled that the killing was racially-motivated. The ruling was hailed as setting an important precedent in dealing with such attacks.

"On the legal front, things are improving," says Vaclav Trojan, a Czech human rights advocate who has been actively lobbying the government to change its policy toward Roma. But he says there is much work to be done to change people's attitudes. He says Czechs who complain about higher crime rates among Roma need to look at the problem differently.

As Trojan puts it: "We cannot use ethnic labels for criminals. Among Roma, you can find one kind of criminality. Among Czechs, another. But we must ask why." He says some Roma have been pushed into petty crime because they lack citizenship. "It's a vicious circle," he says. "It will take time to promote changes...There are no simple answers."