Guardsman suicide - President promises quick reform

18-08-2003

The Prague Castle Guard is in dire need of reform and its transformation process needs to be sped up. Czech President Vaclav Klaus made the call on Sunday, after a guardsman died from multiple gunshots to his head. Dita Asiedu reports:

Many of you who have been to Prague have surely returned home with a souvenir photograph of yourselves next to one of the soldiers proudly guarding Prague Castle. Some of you have also tried to distract them from standing upright and motionless but never managed to grab their attention. For many years, the Prague Castle Guard has enjoyed a respectable reputation of being one of the most elegant and disciplined units in the country. But mounting numbers of scandalous affairs have made many begin to wonder what really goes on behind those stately Prague Castle walls.

On Saturday, a Guardsman was rushed to hospital with multiple gun shots to his head only to die from his injuries two hours later. Although everything points to suicide, an autopsy on Monday is to determine the exact cause of death. An investigation into the case hopes to find what had triggered the act, which follows the numerous similarly dramatic cases of rape, harassment, and hazing.

The shocking developments go as far back as three years ago when ten guardsmen were accused of hazing their colleagues. Although they were never convicted, they faced disciplinary proceedings. The Prague Castle Guard also came under fire when reports showed that several of its members had worked for the secret police under Communist Czechoslovakia. Last year, news broke that an army psychologist was sexually harassing and drugging Castle Guard members. A court in Prague gave him a one-year suspended sentence and ordered him to get medical help earlier this year. However, the unit's morale was also brought into question when the case revealed that guardsmen had often organised soirees during which they consumed large amounts of alcohol. And the list goes on. Two months ago, nine Castle Guard members were found to be posing in their uniforms for a pornographic web site and, at around the same time, two professional soldiers at the unit were accused of pretending to be policemen to blackmail Bulgarian prostitutes on Prague's Wenceslas Square.

According to Prague Castle spokesman Petr Hajek, Czech President Vaclav Klaus has had about enough. The Prague Castle Guard needs to become fully professional, fast:

"The President is currently trying to speed up the transformation process and has entrusted the head of the castle's military section, Major General Vlastimil Picek, with this task. The transformation is already underway and its main goal is to turn the Castle Guard into a completely professional unit, carefully select its members, reduce the unit in number, and focus more closely on the quality of the soldiers' services."

The Prague Castle Guard does not fall under the authority of the defence ministry but rather takes orders from the Presidential Office. It is currently made up of 160 professional soldiers, 700 conscript soldiers and 50 civilians. The Castle Guard was established in 1918 to serve and protect President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Its main task today is to protect the Castle grounds and conduct military honours at Prague Castle.

18-08-2003