Two Slovak were forced to pay a fine and leave the country after being caught and arrested on September 10 for stealing mementos that had been left outside London's Westminster Abbey as tributes to the late Diana Princess of Wales.
The women, tour guide Mária Rigociová, 56, and Agneša Cihelská, unemployed and celebrating her 50th birthday, both pleaded guilty but said in their defense that it is custom in Slovakia to take objects as keepsakes from someone's grave, adding that other people were doing the same thing.
The women were arrested on September 11 and charged with taking 11 teddy bears, flowers, a framed picture of the princess, and other items. A British judge initially sentenced the pair, on a touring group from Slovakia to the British capital, to 28 days in jail and a fine, but a second judge on the case, Geoffrey Rivlin, let them off on a fine of 200 British pounds (11,000 Sk) each.
The Slovak government apologized for the incident. "The Slovak embassy would like to express its regrets and considers this behavior despicable and unforgivable," embassy press attaché Viera Viskupová said in a statement. "We believe the verdict of the court and the sentence that ensued from it were entirely commensurate with the nature of this most deplorable crime."
According to a journalist who happened to be on the tour, Rigóciová, who was the group's guide on the trip, was a great admirer of the late Princess Diana, who died tragically in a car crash in Paris on August 31. Both she and Cihelská laid flowers at Diana's gravesite, the journalist added.
"She's one of our best tour guides, she speaks five languages, and knows really well the histories of England, Italy, Egypt and other countries where she was a guide," said Pavol Komora, the trade director at Satur, the Bratislava-based touring agency which employs Rigóciová. "I can't really understand what happened."
Rigóciová's arrest forced the Satur to reimburse customers for those days they were without her as a guide. According to the journalist on the tour, Satur's patrons were strongly against letting the women ride back with them on the same bus back to Slovakia.
The two Slovaks were sentenced a day after Sardinian tourist Fabio Piras, 20, was fined 100 pounds ($160) for taking a teddy bear from outside St James's Palace. He was punched in the face by a passer-by when he emerged from court.
Andrea Lörinczová and Reuters London bureau contributed to this report.
25. Sep 1997 at 0:00 | Richard Lewis