Czech attorney, post-communist MP and legal advocate for Romani rights, 1963-
It can be difficult for an outsider to wedge her way into the trust of an ethnic community that has been the target of much discrimination, much less to carve a name for herself as a staunch advocate for that group. This is what Klara Vesela Samkova has achieved in a career that includes a stint in the first post-Velvet Revolution parliament, constant threats from extremists, and almost attaining the highest position in the Czech legal system.
Born in Brno in 1963, the well-known human rights lawyer is not Roma by birth, but she holds a deep interest in Romani affairs and is married to the prominent activist Ivan Vesely, who is of Slovak Romani origin. Both are known for provocative public pronouncements on the problems facing the Roma and other minorities in what is still a very homogeneous society.
Samkova’s interest in the “Roma question” dates to her student days at Prague’s Charles University, but she was only able to fully immerse herself in the issue after the Velvet Revolution. The anti-communist movement made 1989 “the first time in the 700-year-history of the Roma in our country that the Roma spontaneously joined the gadje and their political life,” Samkova noted in an interview with Radio Prague.
On 27 November 1989, the president of the Prague-based International Romani Union, Emil Scuka, addressed an enormous crowd on Prague’s Letna park and promised full support for the budding revolution. The Romani Civic Initiative, a new political party Scuka and others founded, joined the anti-communist Civic Forum coalition and party members were elected to the Czech, Slovak, and federal parliaments.
Samkova was one of those deputies in the Czechoslovak federal parliament. The party tried to raise public awareness of Romani issues, but it soon dropped off the political radar. Today, Romani representation in Czech political life consists of a few members of municipal councils.
Samkova began practicing law in 1994, the same year she and her husband founded the civic association Dzeno to publicize the plight of the Roma community. She’s become one of the country’s best-known lawyers for her work on civil rights cases, notably on behalf of Roma who complained of mistreatment by local authorities. In 2003 President Vaclav Klaus – not known as a friend of the Roma – surprisingly nominated her to the Czech Constitutional Court, but the Senate rejected her and Klaus’ other nominees.
Samkova and her all-woman law firm still specialize in discrimination cases. The need may be greater than ever, with ultra-nationalist organizations boosting their public profile and attacks on Roma on the rise. But at least two of Samkova’s early goals have been attained: nearly 20 years after the Romani Civic Initiative proposed it, there is now a cabinet-level Ministry of Human Rights and Minorities, and a long-delayed law banning racial and other forms of discrimination is finally on the books, passed by legislators over Klaus’ veto.