Case of the Sculptor and the Skinhead

PRAGUE -- In few places has the sense of lawlessness sweeping the newly democratic countries of Europe presented a more troubling -- and telling -- spectacle than at the corner of Prague's Slavojova and Ciklova streets.

It was at this intersection on a dank March night that sculptor Pavel Opocensky stabbed to death a 17-year-old skinhead by piercing an artery in his chest.

The fatal encounter came outside a tavern where the boy had been carousing with friends and provoking passers-by.

The killing was four years ago. But the manslaughter conviction of Opocensky and a three-year prison sentence handed down by the court last month have transformed the unsettling case into a national obsession.

In a country fed up with the crime that freedom has fomented across the former East Bloc, the story of the sculptor and the skinhead is a tragic metaphor for popular disaffection with the unexpectedly chaotic ways of the free world.

Crime has trebled in the Czech Republic since the 1989 revolution, with burglaries, thefts and robberies leading the way.

In neighboring Poland, 1,160 people were murdered last year, more than double the number in the final year of communism. Crime in post-Communist Romania is up 270 percent, in Bulgaria, 222 percent.

"How is it possible for a normal, decent guy to be punished for standing up to those teenagers?" said retired Prague physician Zdenek Basny. "We are not willing to accept that rising crime is the price we have to pay for freedom. The public is furious. We are locking doors that we never used to lock."

But in the visceral rush to side with the sculptor, some of the murky circumstances surrounding the death of Ales Martinu have been hastily cast aside. Defenders of the skinhead complain that unquestioning public support for Opocensky has become a disquieting symbol of its own: A crime-weary public is so bent on revenge, so transfixed by its stereotypes of good and evil, that justice does not seem to matter.

"Yes, Ales was a skinhead, but he did not deserve to die," said his father, Mirek. "When a life is taken by someone, he should be punished."

Similar debates are under way in other Eastern European countries. A former Solidarity activist has been charged with murder for shooting to death a thief she feared was about to break into her Warsaw home.

Prominent public figures have rallied to her defense, while prosecutors allege the killing was cold-blooded murder.

An elderly man in western Poland last month stabbed to death two teen-agers who tried to rob him on the street.

The man was hailed as a living legend, but he hanged himself in the hospital two weeks later when journalists began challenging his version of the events.

Opocensky says he killed Martinu in self-defense while doing what any decent person would have done in the circumstances: come to the rescue of a pedestrian being roughed up by skinheads.

He describes returning from dinner with friends and coming upon the skinheads outside a pub singing songs and shouting racial epithets.

When two skinheads visiting from Austria began singing Nazi songs and shouting, "Heil, Hitler," a pedestrian protested and a shouting match resulted.

The skinheads began to rough up the pedestrian, shoving and kicking. Another passer-by tried to help, but he was sprayed with tear gas. When the second man dropped to the ground, his wife rushed to him.

According to Opocensky, he joined the fracas when one of the skinheads lifted up a garbage can and started to run at the woman.

"I was convinced this skinhead was going to hit her with the garbage can. So before he could have done it, I ran against him. Then the other guys came to help him.

"I remembered I had this pocket knife ... I said to myself, 'No matter what, I will not let them hurt me. I am going to do something. I am going to take one of them with me.'

"When the first person jumped at me I cut him with the knife. And that was it. It happened very quickly."

The skinheads tell a different story. They acknowledge there was a fight, but they say the woman was never threatened with a garbage can, and Opocensky unnecessarily escalated a minor incident into a deadly one.

Opocensky also says Martinu came after him with a steel pipe, but the skinheads and some residents of buildings overlooking the street said the youth was empty-handed and was backing away from the sculptor when he was stabbed.

More than 8,000 people have signed petitions circulated by the artists' union demanding that the case against the Communist-era dissident be dropped.

Supporters insist that Opocensky -- a signer of the Charter 77 human rights declaration -- is a hero, not a criminal, for standing up to thugs that even police have had difficulty controlling.