Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Racially Motivated Arson: The Verdict Is Here

It was in the spring of 2009 when a group of far-right extremists threw a Molotov cocktail into the home of a Roma family, severely injuring three people, including two-year-old Natálie, who suffered third-degree burns over 80 % of her body. I remember the shock I felt upon hearing the news. I was living in the Czech Republic at the time.

Today, the highly publicized trial of the four Czech extremists responsible for the racially motivated arson attack culminated with extraordinary sentences handed down by the Regional Court in Ostrava.

As the Romani press agency, Romea, reports:

David Vaculík, Ivo Müller and Jaromír Lukeš have been sentenced to 22-year prison sentences, Václav Cojocaru to 20 years. The court found them guilty of complicity in attempted murder and property damage. They will all serve their sentences in a maximum-security prison and will have to pay the victims millions of crowns in compensation.

The report continues:

Today's verdict does not mean the case is over, however. Both the defendants and the state prosecutor may appeal. Attorneys for defendants Cojocaru, Lukeš, and Müller wanted milder punishments for the crimes of either reckless endangerment or grievous bodily harm and property damage. The attorney for Vaculík wanted acquittal.

Three of those convicted (Cojocaru, Lukeš, and Müller) cooperated to a certain extent with both the police and the court. They confessed their participation in the crime, which according to the file was allegedly committed to celebrate the 120th birthday of Adolf Hitler. However, they all rejected the idea that the attack had intentionally targeted a house in which people were living, claiming they believed it was just a warehouse of stolen goods.

In May of last year, my family joined the ranks of about 3,000 protesters coming together all across the Czech Republic to show solidarity with Natálie's family and to take a strong stand against neo-Nazism.

CNN ran a front-page story last June about the arson attack. A video spotlight also aired:

I visited and wrote about a community not too far from Natalka's during my fellowship in human rights journalism with the Advocacy Project last summer.

Last March, another arson attack on a Romani family's home occurred in that area. This time, the perpetrator was a white neighbor from across the street.

In my article, I wrote about meeting the family whose home was attacked:

As we make our way down the road, we cross paths with a family leaving their home. "Four months ago a molotov cocktail was thrown inside this family's house," (activist Kumar) Vishwanathan relates. "Their teenage daughter put out the fire and saved her relatives' lives."

"How is your daughter sleeping these days? Is she able to sleep?" Vishwanathan asks the mother.

The mother looks down and timidly shakes her head from side to side. The truth is clear. The family is still experiencing trauma, months after the incident.

The psychological, not just the physical, toll following such an attack runs deep and the effects are long-lasting. That is why the tough sentence the court doled out to the attackers who nearly murdered Natalka is significant. The message condemning hate crimes must be strong. It is too soon to celebrate, however. The appeal process will determine the true consequences.