Published on Sunday, September 24, 2000 in the London Observer
Thousands Of IMF/World Bank Protesters Turned Away At Czech Border
As tensions grow before the IMF/World Bank summit, the backlash over oil price protests begins
by Amelia Hill in Prague
Britons were yesterday among the thousands of protesters turned away from the Czech border by police determined to minimise the extent of Tuesday's anti-capitalism protest, organisers said.
About 30,000 demonstrators from across Europe are heading towards Prague this week, determined to disrupt the 55th Annual Meeting of the World Bank Group and the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But instead of taking part in today's mass celebration, a warm-up before the main day of action next week, many demonstrators have spent the weekend camping at border crossings in pouring rain.
'Czech border police are not making illegal demands on those attempting to enter the country, but they are sticking to the letter of the law with absolute rigidity,' said Karlos, a legal observer working for the Initiative Against Economic Globalisation, an umbrella group known by its Czech initials, Inpeg, created to coordinate this week's demonstrations.
More than 70 protesters have been denied access to the Czech Republic from the border crossing at Zinnwald alone, in what organisers claim is a total contradiction of state rhetoric.
'Nine-hour waits at the borders are now routine because police are searching exhaustively for ways of banning everyone they possibly can,' said Karlos. 'Occasionally they cross over and violate a human right, but on the whole they stay a hair's breadth away from actual violation.'
Many activists have been caught by obscure legislation. 'I'm shaking with anger, but I'm not leaving. l'll find some way of getting through, even if it takes all week,' said Anya, a 35-year-old activist who spent more than 24 hours driving from Brighton to Prague in her 35ft van, only to be blocked at Zinnwald after Czech police found a slight irregularity in her vehicle registration papers.
'I've travelled all over the world with exactly the same papers I gave the police here,' she said. 'I even came to Prague last year. They let me in then and now suddenly the same papers aren't good enough.' But Anya's case does not surprise Karlos, a legal observer on the other side of the crossing. 'Cases like this show how little truth there was in the words of the Czech government when it said we had a political right to protest against the IMF meeting. This entire demonstra tion has shown how determined the Czech government really is to deny the right to free speech and political protest,' he said, as he rang around trying to order the papers Anya needed.
Border police are using information from the FBI and Scotland Yard on known activists to prevent people entering the country, including activists from Seattle and Ya Basta!, a pressure group from Italy .
Despite the difficulties, thousands of activists have successfully got in: a camp for 20,000 people on the outskirts of the city is already busy and most hostels and cheap hotels are booked up for the entire week. But police hope that, by flexing their muscles now, they will curb protesters' plans to disrupt the conference later in the week.
Their plan appears to have worked: yesterday's nine peaceful demonstrations are being heralded by the police as proof that their months of preparation have been a success, although today's mass celebration will test that claim.
Nevertheless, tension in Prague has escalated over the past few days in anticipation of Tuesday's demonstration. About 11,000 police, most of them in riot units trained to deal with violent fights rather than peaceful demonstrations, have been mobilised. They have admitted that tear gas and water cannon will be used if necessary.
Six armoured personnel carriers, six troop trucks, two fire engines, two Mi-17 helicopters and two W-3A Sokol helicopters are on standby, according to the Prague Post .
Prague, a Communist citadel for four decades until 1989, has reverted to a Soviet-era bunker mentality, closing more than 1,000 public schools and running a three-month series of alarmist advertisements on television and in the press, warning of the devastation which could hit the city this week.
Many of Prague's 1.2 million citizens have responded by deserting the city but, keen to avoid a repetition of last year's much-criticised May Day riots in Prague, police have agreed to work with 100 volunteer legal observers stationed around the city who will report any violation of human rights. A hotline has also been set up by Inpeg for protesters to report incidents of abuse.
There are tentative signs that the week could pass off smoothly: a right-wing dem-onstration against globalisation that many feared would act as a catalyst for the latent violence lurking here passed off smoothly yesterday, and police attendance was attentive but hands-off.
Even so, protesters are unlikely to find support among older Czechs, said Danielle, 24, a member of the first free generation in the region for 50 years.
'There is practically no one in our parents' generation who has sympathy for this demonstration,' she said. 'The government has emphasised again and again over the past few months how awful it will be here during the conference, but they have not explained the reason why we feel the need to protest.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000