Two prominent Czechs who spent 25 days in a Cuban jail, after meeting with local dissidents, have now come home. On arrival at Ruzyne Airport they thanked everyone who had helped to secure their release. The former Czech finance minister Ivan Pilip and 1989 student leader Jan Bubenik were released on Monday night after making a public admission that they had unwittingly violated Cuban law and offering the Cuban people their apologies. Their release was preceded by three weeks of intensive diplomatic activity and international pressure on Havana from the Inter-Parlamentary Union, the European Union and a number of prominent politicians around the world. The Chairman of the Czech Senate, Petr Pithart, spent five days in Havana last week in order to prepare the ground for their early release.
Throughout the day, Czech politicians have issued statements welcoming the news and expressing appreciation of the mediation efforts of both foreign and Czech officials. President Havel said he was " immensely happy " to hear about the release and was looking forward to meeting with both men in person on Wednesday. The Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan, thanked the Senate Chairman for what he called "a highly successful mission" and expressed the belief that the unhappy incident could have one positive consequence a renewal of dialogue with Cuba. The President of the European Commission Romano Prodi and the Chairwoman of the European Parliament Nicole Fontaine have likewise issued statements welcoming the release of the two Czechs.
The Czech Finance Minister Pavel Mertlik has refused to dismiss his deputy Jan Mladek despite mounting pressure on him to do so. Mladek is said to be responsible for a major diplomatic row, allegedly having told a high level Italian delegation with whom he met several days ago that Italian firms did not stand the slightest chance of being successful in their bids for state owned companies now being sold by the Czech government. Several papers reported on the fact that the Czech Prime Minister, who had painstakingly courted Italian investment , was said to be furious and had given the Finance Minister a deadline by which he wanted Mladek dismissed. The Prime Minister has however rejected claims that the Finance Minister's own position was threatened.
One of the leading Czech meat producers, Kostelecke uzeniny, has started financing its own BSE-tests on slaughtered animals in an effort to reassure public confidence in Czech beef. Testing one animal costs approximately 1,600 crowns but the company considers this the only way of selling the beef that nobody wants to buy. Over 40% of Czech consumers have stopped buying beef altogether, others buy it only sporadically. The beef-crisis topped the agenda of Tuesday's talks between Czech agriculture minister Jan Fencl and visiting EU agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler. Mr. Fischler said that while the Union was hard put to help out its own farmers, Czech farmers could count on some financial support via the Sapard programme. The money should help finance the cost of laboratories and BSE tests.
A regional court has sent a skinhead leader to jail for terrorizing the local Romany community. Jiri Tuma received a twelve month jail sentence for a series of racial offenses including physically assaulting Romanies, threatening to shoot them and burn down their homes, and spitting on a Romany woman. The state attorney on the case said Tuma had not, thus far, appealed the verdict.
The Czech foreign ministry has called on Austrian anti-nuclear activists to re- consider their plans to effect further border blockades in protest against the Temelin nuclear power plant in south Bohemia. Foreign ministry spokesman Ales Pospisil said on Tuesday that the Czech Republic was acting in line with an agreement which the two countries' heads of government signed in Melk at the end of last year and he asked Austrian anti-nuclear activists to respect that understanding. The agreement, which was sealed in the presence of representatives of the European Commission, commits the Czech side to clearing up a number of security concerns linked to the nuclear power station and producing an environment-impact study before putting Temelin into commercial operation. Austrian anti-nuclear activists suspect that Prague may not be fulfilling its part of the deal and have demanded a report on how the environment impact study is progressing. The blockades of two border crossings Wullowitz and Weigetschlag are to be effected from February 16th to February 18th.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, whose country now holds the rotating EU presidency, has pledged to speed up the EU expansion process. However, at a joint press briefing with the visiting Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, the Swedish head of government said that it was premature to set a deadline for the end of accession talks and that much depended on the preparedness of individual candidate states. We believe that setting a timetable at this point could be de- motivating, the Swedish Prime Minister noted. The Czech head of government said his country was aiming for EU admission at the beginning of 2003, which meant a clean desk by the end of the previous year.
Wednesday should bring another bout of mild weather, with partly cloudy skies and day temps between 8 and 12 degs C. Nigthtime temperatures should now hover a few degrees above O.
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