A hockey coach on his way to spend Christmas with his family in the Czech Republic was denied boarding at a Beijing airport last week because of a bike-related incident over the summer.
Tomas Hruby, who coaches hockey for primary school-age children in the capital, had planned to return to his rural hometown to visit his wife, two kids, and parents over the Christmas holiday. The 39-year-old never expected a shared-bike fender-bender from several months ago to derail his winter travel plans.
Hruby told Sixth Tone that he was cycling to the Lishuiqiao subway station, about an hour’s commute north of the city center, around 2 in the afternoon when the incident occurred. He doesn’t recall the date or even the month — just that it was summer. As he approached an intersection, he passed a woman whom he later estimated to be in her 60s riding her own bicycle. As he began turning right, the woman ran into the back of his orange Mobike.
“At first, I kept going because it seemed like a very small accident,” Hruby recalled. “But then I saw that she was old and had fallen down, so I stopped after a few meters to go and make sure she was OK.” Several passersby also stopped to help the woman, but Hruby didn’t understand anything that was said. Though he has spent long stints in China, often for years at a time, Hruby admitted his Mandarin is poor.
When one of the Chinese men who had come to the woman’s aid gestured that it was OK for him to leave, Hruby did so, according to a police report filed the day after the airport incident and seen by Sixth Tone.
Hruby told Sixth Tone he received a phone call from someone he later learned was a police officer on Oct. 20, though he didn’t understand the speaker’s Chinese. He soon received a second call, this time from someone speaking heavily accented Russian and a variety of other Slavic languages. “I think one of them might have been Czech,” Hruby said, “but it was still impossible to understand.”
By this point, Hruby was worried something might be wrong. He had a Chinese-speaking co-worker call back the first number, which was how he learned about the case against him. But the colleague warned him that the call could be a swindler trying to extort him for cash, and told him to forget about it. Phone scams are notoriously common in parts of China.
Fast-forward two months to Dec. 20, when Hruby was stopped at an immigration counter at Beijing Capital International Airport on his way to Prague. “First they told me to wait, then they made a phone call, and then they told me I should go to the police,” he recalled. Airline staff helped him collect his checked luggage but wouldn’t respond to his questions about rebooking. The next day, he presented himself at the Changping District police station.
“When I called my wife, she thought it was a joke,” Hruby said. “She didn’t believe me. When I told her, ‘No, this is real,’ she started crying.” Hruby said that while the Christmas holidays don’t mean much to him personally, they mean a great deal to his family. “We’re always together at this time of year — this is very important to them,” he said.
The Czech Embassy in Beijing was closed for a national holiday when Sixth Tone called on Tuesday. But Hruby has his own contacts there, who have accompanied him on each of his trips to the police station since his missed flight. Hruby said that his employer, too, is supporting him in the case by negotiating with the plaintiffs — whose names Hruby does not know — and speaking to lawyers.
By Hruby’s understanding, the police were not called to the scene of the accident, and the elderly woman’s family took her to the hospital and filed a police report afterward. “They heard that I was a foreigner, so they took her to see a doctor,” Hruby said. “Now they’re asking for money.” When contacted by Hruby’s employer, the woman’s family initially demanded 100,000 yuan ($15,000) in compensation for her injuries, then upped that amount to 150,000 yuan — more than the average Beijing resident earns in a year.
When Hruby returned to the Changping District police station on Wednesday morning, again accompanied by representatives from the Czech Embassy, he said the police convinced him to sign a document acknowledging that because he left the scene of the accident, he was fully responsible for the woman’s injuries.
Hruby told Sixth Tone he has been given three days to either “file an appeal” with the police or risk being taken to court.
But to Wu Jie, an attorney with Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers in Beijing, Hruby’s case seems too minor to justify forcing him to remain in the country. “If you’re not violating traffic rules and you hit someone, by law it’s a civil case,” Wu told Sixth Tone.
According to China’s legal provisions for restricting the entry and exit of foreigners, Wu explained, only individuals involved in criminal cases can be barred by police from leaving the country. “Furthermore,” she added, “if it is later determined that [Hruby] bears no criminal responsibility, then he may be eligible to apply for government compensation” for the cost of his flight and other damages incurred.
In recent years, several high-profile cases of personal injury scams have tested China’s social ethics and taught people to be on their guard when it comes to helping others in distress. In November, a Beijing man was sentenced to nine months in prison for intentionally causing over 300 traffic accidents and extorting his victims for cash settlements. The same month, a teenager in eastern China’s Zhejiang province suffered serious injuries after his parents forced him to jump out of tricycle taxis so they could extort the drivers for cash.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” Hruby told the authorities, according to the Dec. 21 report. “I tried to help someone. I didn’t know the police were after me; I didn’t know I was forbidden from leaving the country; I didn’t know that I was supposed to turn myself in.”
Additional reporting: Lin Qiqing; editor: Colum Murphy.
(Header image: Passengers wait to check in at Beijing Capital International Airport, July 8, 2010. Zhang Kaixin/VCG)