Show Me Your Stinking Badge

Text: Gwendolyn Albert

Six months after financiers and anti-globalization protesters clashed in Prague, the Legal Observers Project (Obcanske pravni hlidky) continues its struggle to hold the Czech Police accountable for their crimes.

At last it's official – if not officially recognized. Those who refused to believe the press releases issued by the Legal Observers Project (OPH) last year - reports of torture by Czech police in the wake of anti-globalization protests - now have Amnesty International's official findings to contend with.

Bild: Prag 2000

The Czech Interior Ministry dismisses Amnesty's findings, as its pre-1989 counterpart also dismissed Amnesty's reports about human rights abuses during totalitarianism. But while the Czech public probably has no memory of OPH by now – a group which fielded 100 observers to record police tactics – Amnesty is recognized the world over. Dismissal of these claims must now take place on the international stage.

Many people have the impression that OPH was just a subset of the anti-globalization protesters. In fact, their status as third-party observers of police tactics was negotiated with the police months in advance of S26.

OPH even managed to achieve what the government's own Human Rights Commissioner couldn't: make the Police obey the law and wear ID numbers on their riot uniforms (attached with Velcro, but worn out on the streets nonetheless).

But the story – still uncovered by any media source - is of the police breaking their own promises as well as Czech law. The police did not inform OPH when those they had arrested requested legal aid. Instead, police officers destroyed the legal aid cards with telephone numbers which OPH had designed and distributed.

Once S26 was in full swing and hundreds of people were being reported missing, the pre-negotiated Contact Group at the Police Presidium sabotaged any cooperation in finding them. This police information embargo applied not only to OPH, but to the Office of the President of the Republic and several embassies. OPH had to deduce prisoners' whereabouts from calls or SMS messages secretly sent from the police stations.

What then, do we learn from the police brutality that occurred here? First, it was not anomalous. Similar abuses have been reported following public demonstrations here since 1993 and are common in other supposedly democratic states, the US among them. Here are a few features of what happened in September worth remembering.

Suppression of Dissent
As OPH emphasize in their final report on police conduct during the anti-IMF/WB demos, the Czech state did its best to suppress anti-globalization protest. Many businesses were influenced to break contracts with protest organizers for performance venues, offices or accommodations – influence OPH attributes to the state.

Given the fact that the art of recruiting (or entrapping) informers was highly developed here under communism, Czech protest organizers were justifiably wary of undercover police infiltration. And what is most interesting in that connection is who made it into the country – and who didn't.

In addition to subjecting those who wanted to enter the country around September 26th to obscure regulations (the Navajo rock band Blackfire was turned back at the border when the car they had used to drive across half of Europe was pronounced unfit by the Czech police) the Czech state's "list of undesirable persons" was augmented before the IMF/WB meeting to include, among others, US citizens without criminal records who had the unfortunate luck to be arrested in Seattle during anti-WTO protests in November 1999.

Just arrested, not charged or convicted of a crime. The list also included people who had visited Prague earlier in the year to organize the anti-IMF/WB events. Minor extortion by a Czech policeman holding your passport in his hand is common enough, but what is chilling is the way in which people were refused entry to the country months later.

This happened not at the Czech border, but before they could even board Prague-bound trains at the Bad Schandau train station, where they were approached by Czech border police while standing on the platform. The police checked passports and then took people into custody without giving any explanation.

One person had her belongings (even her shoes and socks) searched by a Czech policewoman. No one would speak English to her. She was finally told she was "persona non grata" because of a "misdemeanor" of which she had never been charged and escorted onto a train going the other way, to Dresden. Her passport was not returned to her until the train left the station.

When Salon magazine contacted the US Embassy in Prague in order to cover this and similar incidents, they were told that the FBI, which had recently opened an office both here and in Budapest, had nothing to do with providing information about those arrested in Seattle to the Czech Police, but that information of that sort was a matter of public record and readily available on the Internet.

The Czech Police must have had quite a bit of information at their disposal in order to identify someone by sight on a German train platform like that and pre-emptively refuse them entry.

While police were busy refusing entry to nonviolent organizers, sympathizers and freelance journalists, committed militants made it in – and back out – with ease. Meanwhile, local neofascists with baseball bats attacked marches and were given preferential treatment at the police stations.

So far, out of almost 1,000 people detained in the aftermath of S26, only 19 have been charged, and only one successfully convicted of damaging property. That's not a very impressive record for a state that tried to exert the maximum possible control over its own citizenry at the time, closing schools and exhorting its own population not to speak to demonstrators.

To really understand the Czech Police brutality behind the station walls, you must understand first that the Czech Police are lousy at what they are supposed to do, which is to arrest people who break the law. OPH videos show time and again that not only were police operations against those who dared to oppose them slow and ineffective, they also couldn't really use their toys very well (such as water cannons).

But of course the Czech Interior Ministry cannot see its own faults, and the idea, unprecedented in this country, that anyone should dare to actually resist the police, prompted them to blame their lack of rubber bullets for their inability to control the crowds or apprehend any rioters. As OPH points out, it is precisely the fact that such weapons were not available that the number of accidental injuries in the streets was relatively low.

So, if the "Black Bloc" demonstrators, who did break the law, managed to evade Police capture, who were the 949 people arrested? After the Black Bloc provided TV cameras with their footage for the evening of S26 – the same few minutes of McDonald's being smashed repeated ad nauseum – the Police, according to OPH reports, managed to force them off Wenceslas Square.

It was during the Wenceslas Square events that Lidove Noviny journalists documented "demonstrators" who passed through police cordons with ease, smashed in windows and threw stones, then turned around and started confiscating film and arresting passersby. In response to their reporting, the police blustered that no police provocateurs had been deployed in the streets, but the photographic evidence shows otherwise.

And so the police inferiority complex took over. Unable to apprehend any law-breakers, they decided any scapegoat would do and started to close off Wenceslas Square from both ends; at that time, there were primarily passers-by and tourists present on the Square. Thus it was that not only protesters (the vast majority of them hauled away from nonviolent actions) but rubberneckers and random passers-by became the victims of the most brutal violence of all and the subjects of an Amnesty International report.

OPH describes the police torture at the stations as institutional revenge. According to some testimonies, police officers watching the news at the stations would attack their prisoners every time they saw footage of one of their injured fellow officers (also repeated ad nauseum).

The police beat those detained in the belly, genitals, or kidneys; forced them to stand or kneel for long periods of time in unnatural positions; threatened to kill them; insulted their ethnicity; refused them food, drink, access to toilets, and their right to legal aid. People were forced to sign things they couldn't read.

Those who had been injured out in the streets were not given any medical attention or only given it after considerable delay. Numerous testimonies mention the illegal destruction of film, videotape, video and still cameras, and mobile phones. Many people were taken to deportation camps outside of Prague and subsequently had their stay in the Czech Republic officially terminated for "allegedly" participating in a demonstration.

Here are just a few examples of why Amnesty International has taken a renewed interest in the behavior of the Czech Police:
At the Lupacova street police station, for almost 40 minutes, an Israeli citizen had his face beaten, was kicked all over his body, including his genitals, and dragged along the ground by his hair. According to Czech witnesses, the police called him a "black pig" or "black slime" while doing this.

Next in line was a German citizen, who left the station with a broken ear drum. OPH filed criminal charges, but in the end the Police Inspectorate reported that, while a crime had been committed at the station, it was not clear by whom. End of investigation.

At the Ocelarska street station, a Polish citizen was intermittently beaten, practically all night, by officers calling him a "Polish swine" who promised he wouldn't get out alive. He left with a broken tooth after signing, out of fear, a declaration that the Police had committed no violence against him. A French citizen was forced to kneel the whole night and was beaten by police officers every time he toppled over.

The Arabska street station was where police brought a South Korean assistant at the Social Science Faculty of Charles University who was, irony of ironies, working at the time on a World Bank research project. This person was detained at the station 24 hours and tortured by several police officers (punched, beaten with nightsticks, kicked) until he finally urinated on himself.

An American businessman also witnessed brutality at this station; his complaint to the US Embassy about his groundless detention and the brutality brought no results. The Inspectorate investigated by questioning the South Korean and two Czech witnesses - then deferred the case with the explanation that "it is not possible on the basis of Mr. J.'s testimony alone to conclude that the police officers carried out their duty in an illegal manner when the police officers themselves refuse the charges of violence."

There were 25 foreign witnesses to this violence, but the Inspectorate has not attempted to contact them.

At the police station in Hraskeho street, people were kicked in sensitive places during personal searches; dragged by their hair; had their heads beaten against a table; were forced to sign documents they didn't understand; and were forced to lie four to a police cell, during which they were kicked by police officers who were clearly enjoying themselves.

The Bartolomejska police station, infamous as an StB headquarters pre-1989, detained and beat up, among others, an American historian, a British astrophysicist, and a British humanitarian worker.

Witnesses at this station later described the preferential treatment given to the Czech neofascists also held there; in addition to being able to move freely about the place, they even had their baseball bats returned to them on the way out. Complaints and Discipline is in charge of the complaint in this case as well.

You might well wonder why you didn't hear more about these crimes when they were breaking news – considering that anyone in this town in the wrong place at the wrong time could have ended up being tortured by the cops and there is no guarantee it won't happen again. The answer to that is similar to what the US Embassy told OPH volunteers who contacted them about help for their citizens who were in the hands of the police – "We're concentrating on the [IMF/WB] meeting."

Every Amnesty report that gets a minute of news time or a few words in print contains stuff that should have been front-page news months before. Stuff for which government ministers, such as Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, should have stepped down, but didn't.

Human rights workers record the violent events on the part of governments worldwide from which countless people are trying to recover. But this underplayed history of states abusing their power is hardly ever news. It's just the same old story.

The website Obcanske pravn�� hlidky contains more detail as to how the observers were organized as well as the latest results in the various cases they are representing.