Police, audience injuries show need for a tactics review
A techno music festival in west Bohemia, which turned into a melee as 850 riot police tried to break it up July 30, now looks to be shaping up into the political scandal of the summer.
- Who: 850 riot police and 5,000 attendees of the CzechTek electronic music festival
- Where: Mly´nec, a farming hamlet in southwest Bohemia
- Why: CzechTek organizers lease local meadow but fail to apply for permit or erect barriers to adjacent properties
- What: Clashes erupt as police use water cannons, tear gas and billy clubs to disperse crowd
In the wake of the CzechTek fiasco in the village of Mly´nec and subsequent demonstrations in Prague, opposition politicians are calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan as commentators in the Czech press compare police tactics to those used during communism. International media attention has focused on the fray that resulted after riot police used water cannons, tear gas and billy clubs to disperse 5,000 people attending the annual festival.
The raid, which President Václav Klaus called “hard to excuse,” was defended by Bublan, who said that circumstances had made the police action necessary but that the ministry is investigating the tactics police used. Prime Minister Jirí Paroubek said police had acted correctly in defending private property and themselves.
For some, the clash called to mind the heavy-handed police response to protests that precipitated the 1989 revolution. Fifteen politicians and former dissidents have signed an open letter critical of Bublan, himself a former dissident. A columnist in Mladá fronta Dnes, meanwhile, has called the raid a massacre.
The day after the raid, hundreds of CzechTek attendees rolled into Prague to protest at the Interior Ministry and in nearby Letná Park, many carrying signs accusing police of fascism and shouting “Gestapo!” More demonstrations were planned at press time.
Political analyst Bohumil Dolezal said criticism of the police response has become a political weapon as parties gear up their campaigns for elections next summer. What remains to be seen, he said, is whether outrage will snowball to the point that a high-ranking official will resign or will undermine the prime minister’s rising popularity.
“Since cowardice is part of the Czech political scene, the police would likely provide a scapegoat should protests last for another two or three weeks,” said Dolezal. “It’s hard to predict. What we need is a sober analysis of this event.”
Thousands of techno fans began arriving July 29 at Mly´nec, a farming hamlet with a population of 14 near the German border, for the underground electronic music festival whose location is kept secret until days before it begins. Ironically, organizers had for the first time made arrangements with a landowner for the site they intended to use.
Police said that organizers failed to apply for an Interior Ministry permit and that festival-goers crossed private property to get to their site, using neighboring lands without permission as campsites and bathrooms.
Even before the festival began Friday, local police set up roadblocks, according to Czech press reports, letting only pedestrians in. Shortly before midnight, drivers discovered a path through the woods. By morning, 5,000 people and 300 cars crowded the meadow. Thousands more waited in neighboring villages.
Tensions ran high as the techno fans broke through road blocks and busloads of police in riot gear arrived to reinforce them. Meanwhile, locals asked police to open the meadow to everyone, lest the techno fans camp instead at random near their homes.
Police decided, instead, to run festivalgoers out of the meadow. When calls to leave went unanswered, according to police, and after a police car was attacked, forces in riot gear, in a line 500 yards long, armed with water cannons and tear gas, marched in.
The techno fans pelted police with rocks and sticks but the riot squads advanced, shoving and whacking resisters with billy clubs. When the tear gas cleared, 37 techno fans and 47 police had been injured.
A poll by the SC&C; agency two days later showed the public evenly divided on whether the police were justified in dispersing the crowd; 70 percent of respondents said police had been too rough.
“The state has to protect the locals and their property,” said Jirí Pehe, a political analyst and former adviser to ex-President Václav Havel. “The police may have overdone it, though. It’s difficult to tell. After all, as many police in heavy gear were injured as festival attendees.”
In any case, images of long-haired teenagers pinned to the ground with their forearms twisted by men in riot gear have clearly struck a chord with Czechs. Only 16 years ago, communist rule here fell when hundreds of thousands of Czechs took to the streets, responding to police beatings of student protesters.
The political fallout remains unclear as the leading opposition party, the Civic Democrats, and their founder, President Klaus, are now pitted in a standoff against the ruling Social Democrats and Prime Minister Jirí Paroubek and Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan, who apparently authorized the raid.
— Peter Kononczuk, Petr Kaspar and Frantisek Sístek contributed to this report.