Masaryk University students converged on Prague’s Albertov to celebrate International Students’ Day and the Czech Day of the Fight for Freedom and Democracy, honouring the memory of students in front of the Hlávka Hall of Residence near Charles Square and in Žitná Street. Rector of Masaryk University Mikuláš Bek stressed the importance of academic unity as a premise for the development of a free and democratic society, while Rector of Charles University Tomáš Zima and Petr Pithart, the first post-1989 Czech Prime Minister, also addressed the students.
On a trip organized by the Student Chamber of the MU Academic Senate, a group of students left for Prague on two buses in the early morning of Thursday, 17 November. Last year, students were prevented by the police from entering Albertov; the street was closed because of a meeting called by the Block Against Islam party, at which Czech President Miloš Zeman made a speech. “So a few days later, on 22 November 2015, we decided to come to Prague on our own bus and hold another celebration in Albertov. This year we decided to do the same, but on 17 November itself. There was student interest more than a year in advance,” said Ondřej Vymazal, head of the Student Chamber of the MU Academic Senate and an organizer of the event.
MU students joined the morning gathering by the Hlávka Hall of Residence near Charles Square, a place which paid silent witness to the struggle of brave students against the German occupation in 1939, when the deaths of two young people, medical student Jan Opletal and worker Václav Sedláček, shot in the course of a demonstration, led to another demonstration on 15 November. After these events, on 17 November – later International Students’ Day – the Nazis arrested hundreds of students and sent them to concentration camps without recourse to an independent trial; nine students and academics were killed as a result of these events, while Czech universities were closed as centres of freedom and independent thinking.
Around noon the students reached Albertov, where on 17 November 1989 students had organized an event in memory of student victim of the Nazis Jan Opletal, and where the so-called Velvet Revolution against the communist regime, which led to a transformation in Czech society from totalitarianism to democracy, began.
MU Rector Mikuláš Bek told the hundreds of students gathered there that academic unity was an essential part of an open-minded society: “In Czech history, periods of autocracy and liberalism have followed on from each other. Two decades of freedom are now being eroded, and those responsible for this erosion are not even bothering to disguise their behaviour. In the past, when a totalitarian regime slowly came to life, universities were always targets of repression but afterwards leaders of change for the better.”
Later in the evening in Brno, MU Faculty of Arts students held a traditional lantern procession around the buildings of Masaryk University and the Kounic Student Hall of Residence, where the Nazis imprisoned, tortured and killed their opponents, including a number of students and academics.
Muni TV Stisk Report about the 17 November celebration in Brno (Czech only)