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Watch List: May 3, 1999

3 May 1999, Volume 1, Number 21

CLINTON SAYS EARLY INTERVENTION IN KOSOVA SAVES LIVES. Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on May 31, Memorial Day, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that many of those buried there had died "because of what was allowed to go on too long before people intervened." And he argued that NATO's intervention in Yugoslavia was intended to save lives as well as demonstrating "our commitment to leave our children a world where people are not uprooted and ravaged and slaughtered because of their race, their ethnicity, or their religion."

MILOSEVIC INDICTMENT SEEN SPLITTING SUPPORTERS. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's indictment for war crimes is dividing his supporters, according to Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, now abroad, and Anthony Borden, head of the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting. The two argue that some of his earlier backers--"business interests, political supporters, war-profiteers, and Mafia operators"--may conclude that it is now too late for them to turn against him but that others now want to distance themselves from his regime.

PENTECOSTAL CHURCH WINS ROUND IN RUSSIAN COURT. Last week a Magadan court rejected prosecution demands that a local Pentecostal church be banned, AP reported from Moscow. The prosecutors had claimed that the pastor of the World of Life Pentecoastal Church had hypnotized congregants in order to secure donations.

KYRGYZ AUTHORITIES BREAK UP BAPTIST MEETING. On May 20 Kyrgyz authorities disrupted a Baptist evangelistic meeting in Kyzyl Kiya, detained 10 participants, and fined each the equivalent of one month's wages, according to Keston News Service. As collateral for payment, the authorities took the passports and drove the detainees across the border into Uzbekistan.

NORTH ATLANTIC ASSEMBLY CONDEMNS MILOSEVIC, LUKASHENKA. Meeting in Warsaw, the North Atlantic Assembly condemned on May 31 Slobodan Milosevic's policies in Kosova and noted that after Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's term expires on July 20, he will no longer be a democratically elected head of state. The session further declared that the Supreme Soviet, outlawed by Lukashenka, is the country's only legal legislative body.

RELATIVES OF TIANANMEN VICTIMS CALL FOR INVESTIGATION. Ten years after the Chinese government crushed a pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, 105 relatives of those killed or wounded have petitioned the Supreme People's Procuratorate to open a criminal investigation of the officials responsible, "The New York Times" reported on May 31. And the group promised that they will press their case in an international forum if Beijing refuses to undertake the invesitigation. In a related development, the opposition group China Democratic Party (CDP) on May 31 called on the authorities to stop their suppression of commemorative events and to release those arrested so far for organizing them. One of the measures the CDP is protesting concerns the shutting down of a computer chatroom for the first third of June in order to prevent pro-democracy groups from communicating with one another.


By Charles Fenyvesi

The Czech cabinet on May 26 urged authorities in the Bohemian city of Usti nad Labem not to follow through on their plans to build a wall that would separate some 300 Roma from a middle-class ethnic Czech neighborhood.

But many Roma and their supporters in the international human rights community remain unconvinced that the cabinet decision will in fact put an end to the project. "Czech officials--including cabinet members--are adept in assuring concerned foreigners in English, especially behind closed doors, that no wall will be built, absolutely not," says one observer who requested anonymity. "But they do not make it clear in Czech to their own people that such a wall is clearly an outrage and a violation of international conventions that the Czech Republic must comply with."

The controversy rose to the level of a cabinet vote in Prague after a year of legal and public relations maneuvering by leading citizens of Usti nad Labem and only a few days after a building permit was issued there to construct "just a fence" rather than a wall. The Czech authorities also faced a rising tide of international criticism. In March, at the most recent meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Ion Diaconu, the rapporteur on the Czech Republic, criticized Prague for deciding to take legal measures only if and when the local authorities actually started building the barrier.

In a letter to Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman dated May 28, the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center expressed satisfaction with the Czech cabinet's "belated" recommendation to Usti nad Labem. But then the letter cautioned that "the threat of segregation continues to hang over Romany residents" and voiced "wonder" as to why it took almost a year for the Czech government "to act in response to such a blatantly unlawful act, and why it has not been possible, not merely to recommend, but rather to require as a matter of law, rescission of the decision to build the wall."

Since the plan for the wall reached the newspapers in early 1998, President Vaclav Havel and numerous Czech and international human rights leaders have condemned the wall as a step toward apartheid. Several of them followed Havel's example and visited Usti nad Labem in an attempt to explain to the townspeople that building such a wall would be an act of racism which would stain the reputation of the Czech Republic, in which the 300,000-strong Romany minority was already having its share of problems with the majority.

But some local residents stoutly denied that they were engaged in racism, arguing that a wall against the Roma was simply a "measure of social hygiene," perhaps unaware that they were using Nazi-era terminology. They argued that they were only trying to shield themselves from the noise and the rubbish created by the Roma. And they complained that property values declined to the point that they could no longer sell their houses.

This April, some Usti residents went to the town council to endorse what seemed to them a clever compromise: Instead of the original idea of a 4 meter high cinderblock or brick wall which might have reminded some of the Berlin Wall, they proposed a visually attractive 1.80 meter high ceramic "fence." The council awarded the building contract to an influential local Roma who was to add a playground as well on the Roma side of the barrier and new pavement. What is more, the town council subcontracted Romany Rainbow, the contractor's civic organization, to clean up the Roma side of Maticni street.

The town council hailed the compromise as a breakthrough. One important town official, Pavel Tosovsky, boasted to the Czech news agency CTK that the solution was arrived at without "any special mediators and human rights activists from outside Usti nad Labem," a slur aimed primarily at Czech Human Rights Commissioner and former political prisoner Petr Uhl, who had vowed to block any attempt to build any kind of wall on Maticni street.

Another outsider demanding action has been Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). He and his colleagues have missed no opportunity to tell Czech officials visiting Washington that the wall was turning into "the symbol of rampant racism that plagues Europe's Romany minority." Within 24 hours of receiving word on the Czech cabinet's May 26 vote, the commission issued a statement praising the cabinet for its "courage and leadership."

Since then, commission members have been watching the impact. The townspeople in Usti nad Labem are quiet, neither canceling their plans nor preparing to build. But it appears that the cabinet is no longer so sure about the legal foundation of its authority to stop the building of the wall. Informal conversations suggest that the government is especially worried about a recent public opinion poll which had 72 percent of Czech citizens saying that they see nothing wrong about a wall in Usti nad Labem.

"We look to the Czech parliament to lay down a marker," says Erika Schlager, the U.S. CSCE commission's counsel on international law. "We are watching two developments. One, will Usti officials drop their project, and, two, if they do not, will parliament reinforce the cabinet's position?"