Czech Crackdown on Extreme Expression Recalls Former Fears ; A Right-Wing Politician May Face Prosecution for Suggesting the US 'Deserved' the Terrorist Attacks

Article excerpt

Twelve years ago, the Czech and Slovak nations overthrew one of the most repressive communist regimes in history with underground newsletters, enchanting folk music, and mass demonstrations. As a result, freedom of expression is held particularly dear in this part of the world. At the same time, it is treated as a very powerful - and sometimes dangerous - weapon.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States have highlighted this paradox in a controversy over where the limits of expression should be drawn.

Last week, in the northern Czech town of Most, Jan Kopal, a leader of the right-wing National Social Bloc, declared to a small but enthusiastic crowd, "A state, such as the United States, which has perpetrated so much evil, supported international terrorism in the past and killed innocent civilians in, for example, Yugoslavia, deserved nothing but this kind of attack."

The Czech police were quick to react, filing charges against Kopal under a special set of laws, unique to Central Europe, that ban expression of extremist views in public. Politicians and the press almost unanimously condemned the statement, but some here fear that such laws could be used to crack down on anyone critical of the government and its allies.

Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures says Kopal's speech contributed to the "spread of terrorism" and represents a public menace. Kopal will be prosecuted for "praising a criminal act" and could be sentenced to as many as six years in prison.

This case marks the first time this set of controversial laws restricting public expression has been invoked in the Czech Republic for an offense other than inciting racial and ethnic hatred or promoting Nazism.

Most Czechs reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11 with sympathy and support for the US. The American embassy in Prague was flooded with flowers, and candles were lit in windows across the country to commemorate the victims or to plead for peace. But, as the initial shock has worn off, there are signs that not everyone agrees with the pro-American sentiment.

Late last month, a second man was charged with "propagating a movement which aims to oppress human rights", and two youths were charged with hooliganism for cursing the United States and chanting pro-Taliban slogans during a moment of silence for victims of terrorism. Flyers have also been posted in several Czech towns calling the US the "realm of evil," and police are searching for the culprits.

Kopal, who has not been taken into custody yet, maintains that he and others charged are guilty of nothing.

Last week, opinion polls showed that, while 45 percent of the population approves of US military retaliation against terrorism, two thirds of Czechs believe that the attacks were caused by the "insensitive foreign policy of the United States," indicating there may be broad support for parts of Kopal's statement.

Yet, Czech analysts are quick to point out a fine line of difference. "Just because many Czechs say the US brought these attacks on itself, does not mean that the Czech public believes they were just revenge for the activities of the United States," says Ivan Gabal, a sociologist and former anticommunist dissident in Prague.

"The difference between explanation and endorsement is of substantial significance."

In fact, dissident voices in Britain, Italy, Germany, France, and other European countries have echoed similar explanations for the terrorist attacks, stopping short of excusing the violence. …