PRAGUE – Europe’s main human rights body on Wednesday demanded a thorough and independent investigation into the death of a Roma man who died after a Czech police officer responding to a call over an altercation knelt on his neck.
Police say the man's death last week was due to a drug overdose, and the country's prime minister backed their handling of the incident. But Roma activists reject the police explanation and are planning a protest rally on Saturday in the northern city of Teplice, where the incident occurred.
Some compare the incident to the killing of George Floyd, a Black American man who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, according to prosecutors.
The Council of Europe said in a statement Wednesday that the police action was “alarming and raises numerous questions about the circumstances of this tragic incident.”
The local branch of the Amnesty International and the government's envoy for human rights, Helena Valkova, joined the call for an independent investigation while the country’s deputy ombudsman, Monika Simunkova, said Wednesday she will launch her separate probe into it.
Three police officers were involved in Saturday's incident in Teplice.
Video footage shows one of them kneeling on the man’s neck for several minutes. The man, who has not been officially named, later died in an ambulance. Police said a drug overdose was preliminary determined by a doctor as the cause of death.
Police deny wrongdoing. Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said he stands by them. He said police are investigating whether the action was appropriate.
Police said the preliminary autopsy showed the man had a drug in his system and a heart problem, rejecting that his death had anything to do with their intervention.
They said they arrived at the scene, in a Roma neighborhood, after receiving a call that two men were fighting and damaging nearby cars. They said one of the men fled but the other attacked them after they approached him when they saw him lying on the street.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis thanked the police unit in Teplice.
“If someone is destroying cars, is aggressive and even bites a policeman, then they cannot expect to be treated with kid gloves,” Babis said Wednesday.
The site has been turned into an impromptu memorial, with people coming to light candles.
Roma have long suffered racism and discrimination in eastern Europe and continue to face huge hurdles in employment and education.