Tuesday, July 20, 2010



Racist murder of Romani man from Svitavy continues to arouse great emotion

Prague/Svitavy, 16.7.2010 14:01, (ROMEA)

Nine years ago, a 30-year-old father of two, Otto Absolon, died at the hands of a young neo-Nazi murderer, Vlastimil Pechanec, now serving 17 years behind bars. He was sentenced by the High Court in Prague at the start of March 2003. It is as hard to imagine what it must be like to live in prison for so long as it is to imagine what Pechanec will do as a 40-year-old when he is released. It is also difficult to imagine the lives of the two children who were orphaned by one youth’s struggle for a “white Bohemia”.

How did this all start? Pechanec, a troubled pupil at the special school in Svitavy, began committing crimes non-stop at the age of 16 (although not during two years in prison), but he never considered his actions criminal. He had committed them as part of what he considers legitimate combat on behalf of the “white race”. He has never expressed the slightest regret for his actions. He is a true believer.

During his 2002 trial, Pechanec claimed to have left the skinhead movement in 1996. In April of that year, he had organized and attended a march by the neo-Nazi organization Bohemia Hammer Skins in Svitavy. The young “patriots” had ended their march by attacking the home of a Romani family. Pechanec was subsequently given a suspended sentence for rioting.

Again in Svitavy in 1997, Pechanec stabbed 32-year-old L. P., a member of the famous Roma band Točkolotoč, in cold blood, confirming his desire to exterminate the Roma nation. The musician only survived thanks to invaluably rapid medical aid. The court sentenced the teenaged Pechanec to two years in prison for racially motivated grievous bodily harm. However, another incident of grievous bodily harm committed by Pechanec in Blansko in September 1996 was rewarded by the Brno Regional Court in 1999 with a suspended sentence. Pechanec had allegedly acquitted himself well in prison in the interim.

Pechanec returned from prison in 2000 none the wiser. He and others attacked a customs officer on Svitavy’s main square due to his allegedly Jewish origin. Since the victim was afraid to testify against Pechanec, the case was handled as a misdemeanor. This fanatical racist then attended a demonstration organized by the hard core of the Czech neo-Nazi scene on 1 May 2001 in Prague. Police diligently filmed the entirety of this action “for the homeland”; while they did eventually press charges against Pechanec, they never found it necessary to take him into custody.

On the evening of 20 July 2001, a police patrol called to the scene found Otto Absolon had been stabbed in front of the Kongo discotheque in Svitavy. Eyewitnesses told them he had been attacked by a certain Pechanec who frequented the disco. The police asked him to identify himself. He showed them he had a knife on him, claimed it was his, showed them it was clean, and promised to be available at his residence in the morning. Police were satisfied and left the scene of the crime. When Otto Absolon died in hospital the next day, police then asked that Pechanec, who had arrived for interrogation, be taken into custody, and a judge issued the warrant.

Regional-level detectives took up the case and learned to their surprise that police had failed to compile a list of the witnesses present. The patrol had not even completed a protocol on their search of the premises immediately following the crime. Detectives were not able to subject the clothing worn by the suspect at the time of the crime to expert analysis because he had already laundered it. No house search was ever conducted, although one might have produced evidence of racial motivation. The investigator and the court had to rely on eyewitness testimony and the courage of those witnesses to testify against such a person. They were in luck. The eyewitness testimony was convincing.

Pechanec was no sleeping terrorist – on the contrary, for years police had noted he was very active. He had now committed not just racially motivated murder, but what some viewed as a “heroic Nazi action.”

The daily MF Dnes reported on the criminal proceedings as follows: “The argumentation throughout the case has been complicated from the start by the fact that there is no direct evidence against Pechanec. The prosecution is based solely on witness testimony. Regional State Prosecutor Renata Vesecká (...) drew attention to the lack of professionalism of the Svitavy police at the scene of the crime and admitted there could have been more evidence had police done a better job. In her view, the patrol that was first on the scene after the incident did not ascertain the necessary information. ‘Their approach complicated the subsequent investigation,’ Vesecká said. A review conducted by the police presidium confirmed that local police made mistakes in the days following the crime: ‘The review came to the conclusion that the operations center of the district directorate in Svitavy did not proceed completely in accordance with regulations. It did not send a sufficient number of police officers to the scene of the crime as the situation required and did not inform the relevant superior officers.’ ”

The trial began on 3 February 2002. Over the next few months it was attended by observers from human rights organizations, the relatives of the murdered man, friends of the defendant, and the media, which reported regularly on the course of the trial. From the start the defendant denied his guilt and said he was the victim of a plot by the Roma in Svitavy, who allegedly did not like him. Otto Absolon’s common-law wife also testified, even though she was in the advanced stages of a serious illness. Her relatives tried in vain to persuade her not to come face to face with the man suspected of the murder of her partner. She testified as to what she had seen with her own eyes at the time of the crime and what she had heard her dying partner say.

When the judge was through questioning Absolon’s wife, it was the defendant’s turn. He attempted to provoke an emotional outburst from the witness in order to cast doubt on her testimony, asking her whether she had been aware of a love affair between Absolon and another woman who had also been involved with another man who had been present at the time the crime was committed. The defendant claimed that jealousy had been the motive of the person he alleged was the real murderer. He also claimed to have had no reason to murder Absolon. The judge allowed the question and asked the witness to respond. While she was aghast at these claims, she did not break down. She looked the defendant in the eye and told him she knew for certain that he had murdered the father of her children.

Before the end of this first-instance trial at the Regional Court in Hradec Králové, Jakub Polák, attorney-in-fact for the victim’s family, came to the conclusion that Pechanec was not necessarily Absolon’s murderer. He determined that there was a great deal of circumstantial evidence pointing to the fact that another man had been standing in proximity to Absolon at the time of the crime, and that it could have been this person who delivered the fatal stab wounds or at the very least assisted the murderer as an accomplice. He therefore proposed the court return the case to investigators in order to complete the collection of evidence; should it turn out to be warranted, he proposed the state prosecutor also charge the accomplices. R.Ž., the mother of Absolon’s children, fundamentally disagreed with this proposal and cancelled Polák’s power of attorney.

Absolon’s sister then turned to the author of this article with the request that he quickly find another legal representative who would insist on Pechanec’s guilt. The Prague lawyer David Strupek took up this role. However, Polák did not give up his efforts and reported his own conclusions to the press on the day the verdict was handed down.

On 29 March 2002 the Regional Court in Hradec Králové decided Pechanec was guilty and sentenced him to 13 years in prison for racially motivated murder. In the verdict, the judge writes that Pechanec “on 29 July 2001 at approximately 23:30 was in a state of drunkenness, and after yelling ‘What do you want here, you black swine? at a group of Roma from a discotheque ongoing at the bar in the Národní dům Hotel in Svitavy, he subsequently physically attacked one of the group, Absolon, for reasons of racial intolerance (…) first by pushing him in the shoulder, and then by stabbing him twice in the area of the abdomen and once in the right forearm when the victim tried to protect himself, perforating his large intestine and wounding his lower veins and abdominal aorta with the blade, injuries so serious given their general nature and number that the death of the victim was not reversible despite the provision of immediate professional medical attention.”

On the kind of punishment and its duration, the judge added: “The degree of danger of the crime committed by the defendant against society is determined primarily by its irredeemable result, the death of another, for which the motivation was the defendant’s racial intolerance, behavior which the victim did not provoke. (…) The possibility of his re-socialization was evaluated as ambiguous and doubtful given the abundance of negative factors in the defendant’s prognosis.”

On the day of the verdict, the news server iDNES.cz wrote this: “The trial was followed by roughly 20 skinheads and more than 10 Roma. Nine police officers were there to maintain order in the courtroom but did not succeed. ‘In front of the courthouse, Pechanec’s promoters attacked representatives of the Roma and civic activists who had followed the trial,’ the MF Dnes correspondent reports. For almost an hour, the situation in the center of Hradec Králové was tense. The skinheads first began cursing the Roma and shouting that Pechanec was innocent. Then they even chased the attorney for the Roma around town. Only the presence of police reinforcements at the courthouse calmed the situation. ‘No one was arrested, but four or five people are suspected of the misdemeanor of disturbing the peace. For the time being we have not managed to determine whether anyone has been beaten up. Verbal attacks predominated during the incident,’ the head of the Hradec Králové district police said. A consultant for the European Roma Rights Centre claimed the murder of Otto Absolon should never have occurred. In his view, the authorities had completely failed by not taking the defendant into custody long before then. While on probation for a different violent crime, Pechanec was sentenced for yet another racially motivated offense: ‘If they had taken him back into custody, he would never have killed anyone. The prosecution says this was a racially motivated murder, and even though the state organs and the government have been promising for some time to crack down on the prosecution of neo-Nazis and racists, Pechanec’s past record shows they have seriously neglected their obligations.’”

The verdict was appealed by the defendant, who demanded an acquittal by reason of his alleged innocence, and by Regional State Prosecutor Renata Vesecká, who believed the punishment was too mild, as the case met the conditions for extraordinary sentencing. In her view the defendant had given the victim no chance to defend himself and his previous punishments had evidently not led to his correction. The case was thus heard by the High Court in Prague.

One year after Absolon’s death, a commemoration ceremony was held at his grave, attended by his seriously ill common-law wife. The Roma newspaper Romano hangos reported on the event as follows: “Relatives, acquaintances and total strangers came to the Svitavy cemetery on Saturday, 20 July to pay their respects to the memory of Otto Absolon, murdered one year ago. All day long, citizens brought dozens of bouquets, which completely covered the murdered man’s grave. Representatives of the European Roma Rights Centre and the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust (Výbor pro odškodnění obětí romského holocaust – VPORH) also brought wreaths. ‘I felt the need to honor the memory of this person who died so unnecessarily,’ said VPORH chair Čeněk Růžička.’ ”

In his ruling to overturn the Hradec Králové Regional Court’s verdict, the judge of the High Court in Prague wrote: “The Regional Court should have given more details as to why it did not choose the option of extraordinary sentencing for defendant Pechanec (…). It is primarily necessary to stress the essential fact that with the exception of his most recent conviction, the defendant has made smooth going of all of his previous convictions and that the racist motivation of his behavior is the legal marker of a felony.”

Just before the appeal trial began, Absolon’s common-law wife and the mother of their children, R.Ž., passed away. She did not live to see the final conviction of her partner’s murderer. Her suffering was compounded by the lengthy criminal proceedings in the case, which were far from complete when she died. The Regional Court judge handling the case said on 17 October 2002 that the testimonies requested by the High Court had not produced any new evidence and once again sentenced the defendant to 13 years in prison.

That verdict states: “In its previous verdict, damages were awarded to the aggrieved R.Ž. in the amount of CZK 18 215, costs related to the burial and establishment of a memorial to the deceased. However, she has passed away. There were no inheritance proceedings. Her children currently do not have a legal representative according to the Svitavy court’s report. Given these circumstances, R.Ž.’s right to compensation for these damages has been added to the above-mentioned original award to the aggrieved I.V., represented by Mr. David Strupek, who contributed toward paying those costs according to the original statements and in whose name all of the above-mentioned documents are listed.”

After this verdict, both the defendant and the regional state prosecutor appealed once more. The High Court in Prague eventually decided on 4 March 2003 that Pechanec deserved extraordinary sentencing. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison. The daily Právo wrote of the verdict: “The judges (…) emphasized the abject nature of the motive for the murder and the fact that the skinhead, according to experts, cannot easily be re-educated, as he is a recidivist who has been repeatedly previously convicted of violent crimes. (…) According to experts, his assaults frequently had a racist subtext which was difficult to prove, so the perpetrator was usually ‘only’ convicted of the crime at issue.”

To this day Pechanec continues to insist he is the victim of judicial error and that the real murderer is running free. Since 2006, demonstrations in support of him have been held in Svitavy in which promoters of neo-Nazism call for the trial to be re-opened and Pechanec to be acquitted. These demonstrations were repeatedly attended by the youths who are on trial today in Ostrava for the attempted murder against multiple victims which they allegedly committed in the course of an arson attack on a Romani family in Vítkov.

Every year the Svitavy town hall reiterates the reasons it cannot legally prevent these demonstrations from taking place. Otto Absolon’s sister, who has custody of the children orphaned by his murder and their mother’s death, leaves town with them whenever the march takes place. In her view, the children should not have to witness the fact that neo-Nazis are able to move freely about the town expressing their support for the murderer of their father.

This scenario will evidently play out again on 24 July 2010, when the Workers’ Social Justice Party will hold a protest in Svitavy. One hour prior to the march by Pechanec’s promoters there will be a march against racism, organized by opponents of the neo-Nazis for the second year in a row. They hope more local citizens will attend this year so that future neo-Nazi actions will not be realized in the town where Otto Absolon’s children live.

Translated by Gwendolyn Alber

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