The Russian aggression in Ukraine has affected the whole world, including the Czech Republic. What is our approach to the Russian invasion? How do we help and what are the challenges we have to face?

The Russian aggression has been condemned across the Czech political spectrum

On 24 February 2022, Prime Minister Petr Fiala condemned the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and described the incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine as "an act of aggression against a sovereign state". On the same day, MPs expressed their support for Ukraine. At an extraordinary session, the Chamber of Deputies adopted a resolution condemning Russia's "barbaric, inexcusable and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine" and supporting Ukraine's "territorial integrity and sovereignty". The wording of the resolution was agreed upon by all parliamentary groups and all 166 members that were present voted in favour of its adoption. The following day, senators also expressed their support for Ukraine and adopted a similar resolution. [1]

In a speech to the citizens of the Czech Republic, President Miloš Zeman condemned Russia's actions, saying of Russian President Vladimir Putin that "the madman must be isolated and not defended against with words alone, but also with concrete measures." However, in early March, eight former politicians and signatories of Charter 77 spoke out against Zeman and called for his resignation due to his long-standing support of the "Putin dictatorship”.

It was not only politicians who expressed support for Ukraine. In many places across the Czech Republic, Ukrainian state flags were flown, and demonstrations were held in support of Ukraine. The largest of these was held by the association, the Million Moments for Democracy (Milion chvilek pro demokracii) in Prague's Wenceslas Square, with thousands to tens of thousands of people taking part. Five thousand people took part in a demonstration on Dominikánské náměstí in Brno.

Visa to stay in the Czech territory

Ukrainian refugees who arrived in the Czech Republic before 21 March 2022, were granted visas to stay for more than 90 days for the purpose of tolerating their stay in the territory pursuant to Section 33 (1) of the Act on the Residence of Foreign Nationals.[2]

The visa for stays over 90 days was granted by the Ministry of the Interior and in the case of refugees from Ukraine, it was granted on a waiting basis, without an administrative fee. Until 7 March it was granted for four months. After 7 March, the visa was granted for one year. The visa granted included registration for health insurance. The visa was granted at the centre in Vyšné Lhoty or at the Regional Assistance Centres for Ukraine[3] and was only valid for the territory of the Czech Republic. Hence it does not allow its holder to use it as a travel document.

On 4 March 2022, a state of emergency was declared in the Czech Republic. As a result, the police (in addition to the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic) were given the competence to issue visas. This measure was intended to make the system more transparent and faster.

The war in Ukraine and criminal liability in the Czech Republic

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, supporters of Russian aggression have begun to emerge. They express their support in various ways - by visibly wearing the letter Z, representing the abbreviation of the slogan "za pobedu" (for victory) or by public calls on social networks such as "...Let's cheer for the Russians, let's hope they will come this far. If they get here, let's help them just like that, bring them food, bring them water, shower them with flowers." These speeches have been actively dealt with by police authorities and prosecutors from the very beginning in order to assess whether their nature is beyond the limits of freedom of expression. 

In a press release dated 26 February 2022, the Supreme State Prosecutor's Office warned that if someone publicly expresses approval of Russia's attacks on Ukraine, expresses support or praises Russian representatives, he or she could be committing the offence of endorsing a crime, or even the offence of denying, questioning, approving, or justifying genocide. In order to prosecute the above-mentioned crimes, the Supreme State Prosecutor's Office has also prepared an expert opinion to instruct prosecutors working in this area. 

At the same time, the Ministry of the Interior has been preparing a methodological manual for the Czech Police on how to address the use of the Z symbol in support of the Russian invasion. Presumably, this symbol should be treated similarly to the Nazi swastika. However, this is a new symbol and therefore any criminal offence will be very difficult to prove. This was confirmed by the ministry's spokeswoman Hana Malá, who said: "Our legal system does not contain a list of prohibited symbols, the context is always important. The authorities do not prosecute the use of symbols or letters themselves, but the specific actions and intent."

Criminalizing support for Russian aggression is a controversial topic in the Czech Republic. Indeed, some lawyers take a more cautious approach and see the prosecution of any acts of support for Russian aggression as a very strict interpretation of criminal law. In the opinion of some Czech lawyers, this would mean that all endorsements of certain attacks would then have to be prosecuted, which could lead to a denial of the purpose of criminal law and an interference with freedom of expression.

War crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine can be prosecuted in the Czech Republic

The Czech Criminal Code enshrines certain crimes under international law, such as war crimes.[4] The Czech Republic is entitled to prosecute such crimes on the basis of so-called universal jurisdiction at the national level. The Criminal Code states that the Czech Republic can prosecute the following as war crimes: the deliberate targeting of civilian targets, the encirclement of Kiev, failure to allow the transport of humanitarian aid to the civilian population, and mass killings in Bucha near Kiev.[5]

A logical question arises as to whether Russian President, Vladimir Putin, could also be prosecuted in the Czech Republic. Given that the criminal code does not stipulate a crime of aggression, Vladimir Putin cannot be prosecuted for that crime before Czech judicial bodies. However, it is possible to prosecute this crime in other countries (e.g., The United States or Germany). Nevertheless, there is still a possibility to prosecute Putin for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Czech Republic.

Chief State Prosecutor Lenka Bradáčová said in general terms, "The aim of the proceedings is to secure evidence of war crimes through witnesses, victims who are seeking protection from the war on the territory of the Czech Republic." The prosecutor's office also said it is actively cooperating with the European Union Agency for Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters (Eurojust).

Czech citizen's fight in the Ukrainian army: aiding and abetting under threat of prosecution

Although Czech citizens support Ukraine materially with various donations, some are directly involved in the fighting. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on people from all over the world to join the Ukrainian army. In the Czech Republic, however, citizens face up to five years in prison for a crime of joining a foreign army. The Criminal Code qualifies such an act as a crime against the defense of the state.[6]

If a Czech citizen wishes to legally join the Ukrainian army, he or she must first submit an application to the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior, then have to examine such an application and forward it to the Czech President, who assesses each application individually. Be it as it may, former President Miloš Zeman has already spoken in favor of immunity of such “individual warriors” stating that he is prepared to pardon them in a case of criminal prosecution. Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, shares a similar attitude stating that "if you ask me whether I would recommend to the President that he be lenient and allow it in individual cases, I would say yes."

Members of the Czech Senate, Václav Láska and Lukáš Wagenknecht, went further and prepared an amendment to the law that would allow Czech citizens to legally join the armed forces of another State without the exception of the President of the Republic. The amendment was supported in the first round by 40 of the 53 senators present. Its opponents point out, for example, that the amendment lacks a more precise definition of conditions and parliamentary control, which could jeopardize the constitutional and legal framework of the amendment. Senator Václav Láska commented on the criticism: "If in the meantime the government comes up with a solution that works, we will withdraw our amendment." A promise given by the Czech president and prime minister not to constitute a criminal prosecution of Czech combatants fighting in Ukraine finally moved the Senate to vote against the proposed amendment.

There is no specific guidance for dealing with all the legal issues that arose in the context of Russian-Ukraine war

Lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, lawyers, police, NGOs and other experts are currently actively addressing a number of legal issues that they have not experienced before. Although the Czech authorities have already dealt with the consequences of wars and refugee crises in the past, such as the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the current situation is more complex.

Initially, a huge wave of solidarity was apparent across the Czech Republic. People were actively helping refugees, or at least showing solidarity by displaying Ukrainian flags. However, this unprecedented wave of support and understanding has been cooling down and pro-Russian (anti-Ukrainian) stances started to appear. Let's hope that overall support of Czech people to Ukrainians will prevail, the war will end soon, and the aggressor will be defeated and subjected to international justice.

Notes

[1] Senate Resolution 381 on the current situation in Ukraine (25 February 2022). 25 February 2022. Senate of the Parliament of the Czech Republic. Available at https://www.senat.cz/xqw/webdav/pssenat/original/102699/86157

[2] Act No. 326/1999 Coll., Act on the Residence of Foreigners in the Territory of the Czech Republic and on Amendments to Certain Acts, as amended.

[3] There are 17 Regional Assistance Centres for Ukraine in the Czech Republic. More information can be found on this page: https:// www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1FaqUgfUD- Gw0B6_tGVRZE4UhnM-dL_tXp&ll=49.995773089627015%2 C15.536684409471636&z=8.

[4] Section 321(1) of the Criminal Code states that "A citizen of the Czech Republic who performs service in the military or armed forces of another State in violation of another legal provision shall be punished by imprisonment for up to five years."

[5] These acts could be punishable under sections 405a - 417 of the Czech Criminal Code.

[6] According to the Czech Criminal Code, these can be criminal offenses fulfilling the factual essence of, for example, an attack against humanity, aggression, or war cruelty.

 

Sources 

Aktuálně.cz. The letter Z as a swastika. Police to prosecute for symbol of support for Russian invasion of Ukraine. 8 March 2022 (https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/pismeno-z-jako-svastika-policie-ma-st…)

Bartošová, J. with the contribution of ČTK. To help Ukraine! The first fighters from around the world are already in the trenches. Economic Daily, March 8, 2022 (https://ekonomickydenik.cz/na-pomoc-ukrajine-prvni-bojovnici-z-celeho-s…)

Czech News. Senate supports an amendment that would allow Czechs to join the fight for Ukraine. 2 March 2022 (https://www.ceskenoviny.cz/zpravy/senat-podporil-novelu-podle-niz-by-se…)

Dragoun, R. Come fight for us, Ukraine urges. It is punishable for Czechs without Zeman's consent. Aktuálně.cz, February 28, 2022 (https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/pojdte-za-nas-bojovat-nabada-ukrajina…)

Drápal, J.; Bílková, V.. Aggression worthy of condemnation, but not by Czech criminal law. Respekt, March 2, 2022, (https://www.respekt.cz/respekt-pravo/agrese-hodna-odsouzeni-ale-nikoli-…;

Draft Senate Bill by Senators Václav Láska and Lukáš Wagenknecht amending Act No. 585/2004 Coll., on Conscription and its Provision (the Conscription Act), as amended (https://www.senat.cz/xqw/xervlet/pssenat/htmlhled?action=doc&value=1027…)

Supreme State Prosecutor's Office, press release of 26 February 2022 (https://verejnazaloba.cz/nsz/informace-k-moznym-trestnepravnim-limitum-…)

Senate Resolution 381 on the current situation in Ukraine (25 February 2022). 25 February 2022. Senate of the Parliament of the Czech Republic. https://www.senat.cz/xqw/webdav/pssenat/original/102699/86157

Statement by Prime Minister Petr Fiala on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022. Government of the Czech Republic. https://www.vlada.cz/cz/media-centrum/tiskove-konference/komentar-preds….

Vaculík, R. Prosecutors already know what sections to use to authorize the Russian attack on Ukraine.  Novinky.cz, March 5, 2022 (https://www.novinky.cz/domaci/clanek/zalobci-uz-vedi-jake-paragrafy-pou…)

Act No. 40/2009 Coll., Criminal Code, as amended

Ochodkova, K. Russian invasion of Ukraine: Czech footprints in Ukraine's struggle for the future of its nation. Bulletin April 2022, https://www.centrumlidskaprava.cz/sites/default/files/attachement/bulle… Duben 2022.pdf

Sudova, D. Ukrainian refugees and temporary protection status. Bulletin April 2022, https://www.centrumlidskaprava.cz/sites/default/files/attachement/bulle… květen 2022.pdf

 

Pictures

[1] Lex Ukraine to speed up refugee intake. Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022, by Mirek Pruchnicki, 27 February 2022, source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0.