Czech minister under fire for questioning existence of Roma concentration camp

Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis has come under criticism for questioning aspects of the wartime genocide of the Roma people.

Speaking in the northern Czech town of Varnsdorf on Thursday, Babis, who also serves as the country’s finance minister, disputed the existence of a concentration camp where hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies, died during WWII.

“There used to be times when all the Romani people worked. What they now say in the papers that the camp in Lety was a concentration camp, that’s a lie, it was a labor camp. Whoever avoided work was sent there,” Andrej Babiš said during a stop on his campaign trail ahead of October’s regional election.

The camp in Lety, located some 45 miles south of Prague, was set up in 1939 as a labor camp for people deemed to be avoiding work. But in August 1942, the Nazi authorities turned it into a concentration camp for the Roma people where more than 1,300 people were interned, including families with children.

Over 320 people died in the Lety camp. Most of the inmates were deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, and the Lety camp was closed down in 1943. In total, some 5,500 Czech Roma people were deported to Auschwitz, with around 600 them having survived the Holocaust.

Andrej Babis, a billionaire leader of the populist ANO party, has denied intention to question the Roma Holocaust. In a Facebook post, he said he had been quoting someone else’s opinion, and that his words had been taken out of context.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka as well as several other government ministers and opposition leaders have meanwhile denounced Babis’ remarks. “He should be ashamed, and he should apologize and stop spreading such stupid things,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told the news website

The head of the Czech Republic’s federation of Jewish communities, Petr Papoušek, told JTA Babis should apologize for his statements.

“It’s astounding that a government minister would say something like this. It was an ignorant and populist comment. And I don’t think his Facebook comment helped clear things out – it’s phrased in such a way that should still allow him to gain political support,” Petr Papousek said.

Bosnian politicians mull ending constitutional discrimination of Jews, Roma

Politicians from Bosnia and Herzegovina discussed changing the country’s constitution to end discrimination against Jews and other minorities.

The politicians met on July 13 but did not come up with a concrete plan. Two days earlier, an Irish minister had urged Bosnia’s government to allow Jews, Roma and other minorities to run for high elected office. Ireland is the 2012 chair of the Organization for Security in Cooperation in Europe – an intergovernmental body.

“There is no excuse to discriminate against anyone, especially minorities,” Irish European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton said during a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “This is especially important in a post-conflict society.”

The Bosnian Constitution, drafted during peace talks in 1995, restricts the highest offices of state to members of three ethnic and religious groups – Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. The constitution was devised to avoid ethnic strife, following a bloody civil war which ravaged the country from 1992 to 1995.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2009 that the exclusion of Jews and Roma from Bosnia’s highest state offices is unlawful discrimination.

Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jewish lawyer who filed the lawsuit, told JTA that “nothing has been done” since the ruling. He filed it along with a Roma colleague.

“Being a small group of 1,000 Jews, we do not have any power to change this,” Finci said. “[It’s up to] the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which we do not have even one representative.”

High percentage of Romanian teens reject Jews, Roma, gays, Muslim as neighbors

One third of Romanian teenagers would be opposed to living next to Jewish neighbors according to a poll that found even higher levels of prejudice directed at Roma, Muslims and gays.

Three quarters of respondents said they did not want gays living next door, according to the poll, reported Friday by Associated Press and carried out last November.

Two thirds rejected being neighbors with Roma and AIDS sufferers, while 42 percent rejected Muslim neighbors and 34 percent rejected Jewish neighbors.

The poll, commissioned by the Soros Foundation, questioned 5,680 students between the ages of 14 and 18 and has a margin of error of 2 percent.