Právo has also reported that Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek met with opposition leader Jiří Paroubek on Thursday to discuss the Czech Republic’s taking up the six-month EU presidency on January 1. The two men – major rivals in the 2006 national election – reportedly met for 90 minutes to “fine-tune” future steps. In recent days some media, as well as several EU parliamentarians, questioned the Czech Republic’s ability to lead the union during a time of global financial crisis and recession. A weak showing by Mr Topolanek’s party in recent regional and Senate elections – won almost single-handedly by Mr Paroubek’s Social Democrats – has also raised questions about the Czech government’s strength.
The Chamber of Deputies has passed a government bill expected to toughen criteria for the possession of firearms in the Czech Republic as of January 1, 2009. The aim is to lower the risk of legally-held weapons being used in crimes. The bill, which passed without any major modifications, also toughens criteria for those seeking a gun licence, said to disqualify individuals with histories of heavy alcohol or drug abuse. Also toughened: punishment for crimes involving firearms as well as stricter controls on defunct weapons. In past cases, firearms that had been written off were later found to still be functional and in illegal use; before being passed into law the bill will still have to be signed by the president.
Hotel-owner Bohumír Ďuričko, in custody for the murder of Václav Kočka, jr, the son of a close associate of Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek, will be allowed to apply for release on bail. The spokeswoman for the Prague public prosecutor’s office made the announcement on Friday, saying the prosecution had found there was no longer a threat Mr Ďuričko might try to influence witnesses. On the other hand, she maintained there was still a danger of potential escape. Mr Ďuričko could apply for bail as early as next week. On Thursday, the Kočka family, rejected an apology by the hotelier for his actions: the victim, Václav Kočka, jr, was shot to death in front of witnesses at a Prague restaurant earlier this month.
The US has pledged to provide 600 thousand US dollars in funding so far for three out of eight Czech scientific projects; Henry Obering, the head of the US Missile Defense Agency, made the announcement in Prague on Friday. He stressed it was only the start of future cooperation. The US agreed to finance the projects in connection with the Czech government’s backing of a US radar base on Czech soil - part of a missile defence system planned by the US in central Europe. Eight projects in different fields, submitted by the Czech Academy of Sciences, made the previous shortlist: fields include nanotechnology, robotics, laser technology, among others. Treaties on the US radar base have yet to be approved by the Czech Parliament.
Prague Mayor Pavel Bém, who has declared he will run to become the next leader of the Civic Democratic Party, said on Friday that Mr Topolánek should stay on as prime minister. He stressed that splitting the roles of prime minister and party leader would not lead to a rift in the party. At the same time, Mr Bém, who is the first deputy leader of the Civic Democrats, laid the blame for recent poor results in regional and Senate elections with the government as a whole. Mirek Topolánek has not yet confirmed whether he will run to retain the party leader post.
The lower house has passed an amendment to the criminal code which in the future should more firmly protect crime victims’ personal privacy, banning the publication of details in the case of minors, as well as adults who hadn’t issued prior consent. Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil said the law would allow for information to be published only if it was in a victim’s or the public’s interest, for example, in abduction cases or for identification purposes. The ban on publishing personal data will also include photographic or video images. Any breach could lead to a five million crown fine, and in some cases, up to five years in prison. Under the law, which now goes to the Senate, the media would no longer be able to publish images of children in divorce cases, or any images of minors in cases of child abuse. The government committee for children’s rights recommended that existing legislation be toughened after a case of severe child maltreatment in the town of Kuřim came under close media scrutiny for months, both this and last year.
In related news, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris to discuss the Czech Republic’s taking up the EU presidency on January 1. The meeting followed speculation in the media that Paris was trying to downplay Prague’s upcoming role at the head of the EU, in light of the global financial crisis and other key issues. In recent days, some media also questioned the Czech Republic’s overall preparedness. But on Friday, the French president reportedly fully backed the Czechs as the next EU leaders, stressing that Czech representatives should also be present at an upcoming New York summit on the financial crisis.
The daily Právo has reported that Czech Member of the European Parliament Jan Zahradil may run for the post of leader of the Civic Democratic Party at the party’s December congress. He told the daily he might aim to lead the party for an interim period of one year, saying such a move depended on how two blocs within the ruling party clashed in December. One faction may back current leader Mirek Topolánek, another, his challenger Pavel Bém. Mr Zahradil said he would consider such a clash “unfortunate” and made clear his decision to run would be an effort to re-unite his party. The MEP is known for having close ties to the country’s president, Václav Klaus, founder of the Civic Democratic Party. By comparison, the president’s relationship with current chairman Mirek Topolánek is known to be rocky.
Five Burmese families, mainly young parents with children, who landed at Prague’s Ruzyně international airport on Thursday will be granted asylum in the Czech Republic. The news was released by an official from the Interior Ministry. 23 refugees will be granted asylum within a state-funded resettlement programme. The families were reportedly severely persecuted by the Burmese authorities because they hid insurgents, supported rebel activities and went against the orders of the Burmese government. The group survived a dramatic escape from their homeland after soldiers sank the refugees’ boat. A number of young children drowned.
The Finance Ministry has reduced its expectation of GDP growth in 2009. Its analysts now predict the Czech economy will grow by 3.7 percent next year, down from the 4.8 they forecast in July, prior to the international credit and banking crisis. The draft budget for 2009 was drawn up on the basis of the July estimate. The ministry has revised its GDP forecast for this year from 4.6 percent to 4.4 percent. 2007 saw record Czech GDP growth of 6.6 percent.
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