Czech Bill On Child Porn Faces Resistance

By Bruce I. Konviser
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 3, 2007

PRAGUE -- When Austrian authorities announced in February that they had uncovered an online child pornography ring, pedophiles around the world suddenly became potential targets of criminal investigations -- but not the ring's 63 customers in the Czech Republic, where downloading and possessing such images is not a crime.

The videos, which show at least one girl who appears to be 5 years old and include on-camera scenes of girls being raped, are characterized by Austrian police as "the most brutal form of sexual abuse."

In all, Austrian police seized 1,132 DVDs, 1,428 computer disks, 213 videocassettes, 31 computers, seven laptops and 23 external hard drives. They passed along the computer details of more than 2,300 suspected clients of the site to law enforcement officials in nearly 80 countries.

Gwendolyn Albert, head of the Women's Initiative for Peacework, a local advocacy group, notes that people paid about $90 to access the site's material, creating a paper trail that could lead to prosecutions in most countries.

But "the people who downloaded the material in the Czech Republic get off scot-free," Albert said. "This is such a gruesome crime that we need to be able to track down the end-users whose demand drives this industry."

Creating and selling child pornography is illegal in the Czech Republic. But the law does not extend to people who obtain it. Despite repeated calls for legislation in the nearly 20 years since communism's demise, this country of 10.2 million people remains the most prominent haven for consumers of child pornography in the 27-member European Union.

Slovenia, a tiny Balkan nation of 2 million people, is the only other E.U. country not to have outlawed possession of the material, according to an Interpol Web site that summarizes national laws.

The E.U. headquarters in Brussels has considerable authority over national regulations of member states concerning such things as food quality and the environment. But its influence in criminal law is minimal. That area remains largely under the sovereign power of national governments.

In the Czech Republic, which joined the E.U. in 2004, an attempt to criminalize possession began last year when two legislators from the Communist party put forward a bill. It passed the lower house of Parliament but was rejected by the Senate in July.

Senate opposition to the bill was spearheaded by the Civic Democratic Party, known by the Czech initials ODS, which leads the ruling coalition and holds the Justice Ministry portfolio. Senate Chairman Premysl Sobotka, an ODS member, defended the vote in language similar to that used by opponents of such measures in years past.

"Even a spam in your e-mail box could cause a situation that you would be prosecuted," he told the Czech News Agency. "We want to avoid this."

The Justice Ministry, led by ODS legislator Jiri Pospisil and Petr Tluchor, chairman of the ODS group in Parliament, declined to comment for this article.

In other E.U. countries, governments have outlawed possession of child pornography without the law being misused to entrap enemies.

Per Lennerbrant, a legal adviser at Sweden's Justice Ministry, said anyone coming into possession of child pornography in Sweden would not face criminal charges if the material was turned over to police in a timely manner. Also, investigators can determine whether a recipient ordered the material.

Aggressive efforts to combat child pornography, such as those in the United States, are undermined by countries that provide havens for those who consume such material, legal experts say.

"It makes it almost impossible for U.S. law enforcement to eradicate the material and is partially responsible for the explosion in the amount of material we have seen in the past few years," FBI Special Agent Jason Pack said in an e-mail. "New material fuels the desire for more material thus causing more exploitation of children."

Undaunted by the Czech Senate's rejection, the bill's sponsors in the lower house are trying again. Passage would override the Senate vote and send the measure to the president to sign or veto.

The outcome is uncertain. Bills submitted by junior members of the opposition rarely pass, and because the bill's sponsors are members of a party detested by the political mainstream, it faces additional resistance.

Katerina Konecna, one of the Communists sponsoring the bill, hopes that lawmakers will put aside their ideological enmity. "If someone won't vote for the bill, it will not hurt the Communist party," she said. "But it will punish the children."

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