Detained for removing communist symbols

The recent detention of an artist for disposing the sickles and hammers from a memorial opened a discussion about the attitude towards characteristic symbols of totalitarian regimes.

The damaged memorial in KošiceThe damaged memorial in Košice (Source: TASR)

Slovaks have already read or heard about the damaged memorials dedicated to controversial personalities and events linked to totalitarian regimes. But several days in custody for such a deed, until recently, were unheard of.

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The police have accused civic activist and artist Ľuboš Lorenz of disorderly conduct for removing eight communist symbols depicting the hammer and sickle from a memorial for World War II victims in downtown Košice.

He was imprisoned on August 30, and released only on September 2, after the General Prosecutor’s Office and regional prosecutor’s office stepped in.

Read also: What to do with hammers and sickles? Read more 

Lorenz keeps saying that by removing the communist symbols he was only trying to prevent the crime of promoting groups that suppress fundamental human rights.

“The sickle and the hammer symbolise a regime, under which Red Army soldiers were suffering,” Lorenz said in an interview with the Sme daily. “It is not a dishonour to them. Will we now be putting swastikas on the graves of German soldiers too?”

Lucia Kurilovská, rector of the Police Academy and an expert in criminal law, however, says his argument that he was preventing the crime of using symbols of totalitarian regimes in public does not hold up.

Instead of removing the symbols, people should submit a criminal motion to the respective authorities and bring their attention to the problem.

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“One cannot take the law into their hands in this way,” Kurilovská told The Slovak Spectator.

Extraordinary decision

The official reason for detaining Lorenz was that he damaged a memorial, explained Košice police spokesperson Jana Mésarová.

“Every wrongdoing can only be corrected by lawful means, not by violating other laws,” Mésarová said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Lorenz was expected to be prosecuted in a so-called super-fast proceeding, media reports suggest.

The decision, however, opened a heated discussion as nobody had been detained in the past for damaging other memorials. People even organised protests in Bratislava and Košice, while several personalities signed a petition against the detention prepared by opposition MP Ondrej Dostál.

Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská questioned the fact that Lorenz was to be tried in a super-fast proceeding, explaining these procedures are used mostly in cases of hooligans in stadiums, as reported by the Denník N daily.

President Andrej Kiska even called the actions of both the police and the district prosecutor’s office strange as the steps adopted in previous cases have been different.

“I was speaking with the general prosecutor, who informed me that following the intervention of the General Prosecutor’s Office and the regional prosecutor’s office the proposal for custody was dismissed and Mr Lorenz was freed,” Kiska stated on his Facebook page on September 2.

Problems with police

The district prosecutor’s office did not explain why it had proposed taking Lorenz into custody, but the activist later told journalists this was probably caused by public pressure, Denník N reported.

Lorenz is still convinced that he observed the law when removing the symbols placed on the memorial at odds with the law. When approaching the memorial, he noticed traffic police officers who were patrolling near the memorial. He thought the police would help and protect him.

After he was detained, he had no idea he would spend three nights behind bars.

“If I had known I would have never acted in front of the police officers,” he told Denník N.

Since they knew the punishment would not be serious, the police officers tried to complicate his situation as much as possible and treated him terribly, Lorenz added.

“I know what the police force tastes like,” Lorenz told journalists after being released, as quoted by the regional daily Korzár. He added that police officers have several possibilities of making a stay behind bars unpleasant.

Charges remain

Though Lorenz was released from custody, the charges for disorderly conduct have not been dropped.

“I face further charges, but I think I will defend myself without any problems because what I was doing was not a criminal offence,” Lorenz said to journalists after his release.

Meanwhile, Lorenz’s lawyer Daniel Lipšic explained that the artist was only removing the copies from the plywood which are not part of the memorial. Thus, their removal does not mean that the cultural memorial is damaged, the regional daily Korzár reported.

The maximum punishment Lorenz may receive is a financial penalty, Lipšic added. He also thinks that the idea of taking the artist into custody was only an attempt to scare him off, Korzár wrote.

Lorenz was not removing the symbols to prevent a crime that could have posed a threat to the life, health and property of people, Kurilovská said. His argument that he was trying to prevent the violation of the law can only be used to diminish his punishment.

Disputes with the city

The sickles and hammers from the monument to the Soviet army soldiers in Košice were officially removed between December 1989 and May 1990. It then contained only one original, which remained there until 2010. In that year, the city placed new stars and added the 21 missing sickles and hammers onto the memorial.

Since then, various activists have kept removing the communist symbols from the memorial, Sme reported.

The installation of new symbols, which were removed by Lorenz recently, was not approved by the respective monuments board.

Sme asked Košice Mayor Richard Raši about the repeated gluing of the communist symbols to the memorial. He only said that the monuments are repaired by the city vegetation administration, which will now wait for a statement by the preservationists on what to do next.

Lorenz considers Raši’s statement to be buck-passing, though.

“Everybody knows it’s a cultural monument, but Raši continues gluing the sickles and hammers on it,” he said in the interview with Sme. “He is ignoring the law. Under his order the crime of defaming a cultural monument is being committed.”

Kurilovská stressed that the law should be observed even in the case of memorials.

“When they put the communist symbols back on, they are acting unlawfully,” Kurilovská said.

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