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Czech cities wall off gypsy ghetto

THE wall, symbol of a divided Eastern Europe, is back. Not in east Berlin, but in two cities in the Czech Republic, where local officials are planning to construct barriers to segregate gypsies, or Roma, as they

prefer to be known, from the rest of the population.

Municipal leaders in Usti Nad Labem, an industrial city on the Elba, and in Pilsen, the country's brewing capital, plan the apartheid-style measures which human rights activists and Roma leaders say are reminiscent of the Nazi holocaust when Roma, along with Jews, were separated from the rest of the population.

Usti Nad Labem officials plan to build a wall around two apartment buildings that house over three dozen Roma families. They claim the inhabitants refuse to pay rent on their council flats, disturb neighbours by leaving rubbish on the streets and sing and dance outside until the early hours of the morning.

Inhabitants of the apartment building claim the city officials refuse to provide them with proper municipal services and deny they cause a public nuisance.

Milan Knotek, spokesman for the Usti city council, denied the council planned to ghettoise its Roma community. "The fence will separate this problematic community from those people who have private houses on the road. The wall will not stop them from moving about. It will not be a ghetto enclosed on four sides."

The plans for Pilsen are more elaborate, and look set to infringe human rights even more, say opponents of the project. Municipal officials there plan to construct a compound on the city's outskirts composed of portable cabins surrounded by a fence with its own police station inside that will stay open 24 hours a day. A caretaker will have the right to enter any room whether or not the resident agrees, a local official told the Czech press.

To many in the West, the Czech Republic has a liberal image, exemplified by the country's former dissident and playwright President Vaclav Havel. While Mr Havel himself has spoken out in support of the Roma cause, among most of the population anti Roma prejudice runs high.

Roma are regularly attacked by neo-Nazis who have links to organised far-right groups in Germany and Austria. Harassment by police is routine, as is discrimination by housing and welfare officials. Early this month a Czech Roma man died after skinheads beat him unconscious and left him in the street where he was run over by a truck and killed.

Roma and human rights activists across central Europe have condemned the plans to segregate Roma people in the two Czech cities. "This is pure racist segregation," said Dmitria Petrova, of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest.

Together with Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic is one of the region's three frontrunners for European Union and Nato membership. They are sensitive about their image in the West and in Brussels, and local Czech officials denied they were shunting the Roma minority into a ghetto.

Jan Kocourek, deputy mayor of the Usti district, responded angrily when questioned by an American journalist who suggested the city's plans were a violation of Roma civil rights. "Rights? Are you serious? What civil rights? They can vote, but they don't. They can work, but they don't. They can pay rent, but they don't."