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Witch Hunt in Prague

Two and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, throngs of people fill Wenceslas Square day and night, many of them tourists or foreigners who have come to Czechoslovakia to help rebuild the country or just to be where the action is. Much of the city’s center is being “gentrified”; walls glisten with fresh paint. There are still many stores from the Communist era, their signs a study in brown on brown, their names announcing only the products they sell—“Tabák,” “Drogerie”—but they are now interspersed with stylish shops such as “The Country Life,” a health-food store, and one selling American T-shirts that say “Prague: Czech It Out.” Notwithstanding a huge new McDonald’s, it is mainly German investment capital that is making such changes possible.

There seems something naive and innocent in the new atmosphere. Even the prostitutes who now patrol the hotels, as the secret police used to do, look like inexperienced schoolgirls, swinging their clunky handbags as if they were lunchboxes. In my hotel room I found a Bible as well as advertisements for nightclubs and “topless” cabaret shows; and among the many publications sold around town is the English-language Prague Post, which carries a large advertisement for The New York Review of Books, a publication that I used to smuggle into the country.

I visited Prague in March, for the first time in two years. In the old days, such a lapse of time didn’t matter much. I knew what to expect when I went there on a human rights mission for Helsinki Watch. The situation was black and white. On one side were the Communists who, during the twenty-year period known as “normalization” which followed the 1968 Soviet invasion, claimed one fifth of the population as Party members and seemed in almost complete control of every civil institution. Opposing the Communists was a small band of Charter 77 activists, some of them former Communists who had supported the Prague Spring and broke with the Party in 1968. These people were persecuted and ostracized, yet they continued to stand up to the authorities with remarkable stamina and élan. The rest of the population hardly seemed to matter. Derisively referred to by some dissidents as the “gray zone,” they were passive and seemingly apolitical, escaping to their country cottages on weekends and avoiding trouble with the regime.

Among the people I saw first on arriving in Prague this March were Václav Havel, Jirí Dienstbier, Martin Palous, and Petr Uhl, all of whom I had known as dissidents during the more than a dozen years in which Helsinki Watch has been monitoring human rights in Czechoslovakia. They are now, respectively, president, foreign minister, deputy foreign minister, and director general of the Czechoslovak News Agency. We used to meet on street corners, in parks, or in out-of-the-way cafés; this time I met Havel in the gilded rooms of the Hradcany Castle and posed for photographs at the meeting’s end. Yet despite all these miraculous transformations, my concerns, sadly, were all too familiar: I was there to discuss human rights problems in post-Communist Czechoslovakia with a government now run by my former colleagues in the human rights movement.

On October 4, 1991, the Czech and Slovak National Assembly passed a new law known as the “lustration” act (the term, derived from Latin, literally means “sacrificial purification”). It is directed against former secret police agents and their collaborators, against former Communists who had held positions of authority from the district level up, and against thousands of others who belonged to groups such as the voluntary Peoples Militia, which was run by the Party. It applies as well to members of National Front Action committees and similar committees that were used to exclude undesirable or suspect citizens from jobs, civic organizations, and universities after the Communists clamped down on independent activity in 1948 and 1968. The lustration law also singles out people who received police training in Moscow.

According to the International Labor Organization, more than one million people could be affected by the law. It bars, for a five-year period, former members of the listed groups from holding high-level administrative posts in the government ministries, the military, the intelligence service, the police corps, state radio and television, news agencies, and state-owned enterprises including foreign trade companies, railways, and banks. It also excludes them from high academic positions, and from working as judges, prosecutors, investigators, and from other positions connected with the courts. The law allows citizens to contest its findings before an independent commission; by the end of March it had received about three hundred requests for review and acted upon eight. “And it is just beginning,” a journalist told me in Prague. “It’s much bigger than anyone anticipated.”

The law has two aims: first, to remove or exclude from government jobs people who in the past held certain official positions or belonged to certain Communist-run organizations; and second, to expose and to exclude from government employment anyone who worked for the secret police. The law was heatedly debated in the Parliament in late 1991 and passed by a very close vote. Many of the deputies who had spent their lives fighting communism found themselves voting against the law along with the Communists, who have 13 percent of the Parliament’s 350 seats. Jirí Dienstbier refers to the anti-Communist deputies who voted for the bill as “right-wing Bolshevists” in spirit.

In dealing with former Communists and fellow travelers, the law places the burden of proof upon all persons holding or seeking high-level positions; it requires each employee or each job applicant to produce a document issued by the federal ministry of the interior declaring that he or she is “clean,” i.e., did not belong to any of the listed organizations. It thus makes a blanket assumption of collective guilt, punishing people for having belonged to certain groups, regardless of when they belonged, what activities they engaged in, or how tenuous their connection may have been. (In the original version of the law that the government submitted to Parliament, officials would bring cases only against specific individuals who were believed to be responsible for specific violations of human rights; but that provision in the law was eliminated during the parliamentary debate.)

With regard to secret police agents and informants, the law relies on records discovered in the registers and files of the StB—the secret police. The law therefore discounts the possibility that the evidence might have been placed there for sinister or self-serving reasons and it assumes the raw information to be correct unless proven otherwise. Moreover, the files are far from complete: more than 15,000 of them, mainly current files of highly placed agents and officials, were destroyed by the StB during the final days of the Communist regime. Richard Sacher, the first minister of the interior appointed after the revolution, was, I was told, close to some of the secret police and may have allowed additional files to be destroyed.

Early in 1990 Havel replaced Sacher with Jan Langos, a former dissident and Catholic activist with fierce anti-Communist views. By collecting police registers throughout the country and assembling them in Prague, Langos laid the ground for the lustration law. The police registers, which are both handwritten and entered in computers, are in effect indexes to the extensive police files; they contain the names of some 140,000 secret police agents, collaborators, and contacts during the Communist period between 1948 and 1989. The supporters of the lustration law say that the information in the registers has proved to be reliable. They have thus put their faith in the secret police, who were known to have lied consistently and to have misled and abused the population; in this sense it appears the police still rule, reaching out from the grave.

The lustration law was a predictable expansion of an earlier purification measure affecting only members of Parliament. In February 1991 a commission was appointed in the Parliament to review the police files and expose parliamentarians who were listed in them as agents or collaborators. Parliamentarians, because they are elected and enjoy immunity, cannot be dismissed; instead those whose names were found in the registers or files were told by the commission that they could either resign quietly from Parliament or be exposed publicly. On March 22, 1991, at a special, televised session of Parliament, the names of ten StB collaborators were read aloud. These were the deputies who refused to resign; some are now contesting the charges.

On December 11, 1991, Parliament passed another anti-Communist law, number 260, saying,

Whoever supports or promotes groups which demonstrably aim to suppress the rights and freedoms of citizens or declare national, racial, class, or religious hatred [such as, for example, fascism or communism] will be punished by imprisonment for one to five years.

This law, which was immediately criticized by President Havel, has not so far been applied. Its vagueness and the fact that it was passed in a society in which the Communist Party is still legal have led many to believe that the newly created Constitutional Court will rule it unconstitutional.

Supporters of the lustration law say that only several thousand positions are at stake, yet more than 300,000 applications have been submitted to the ministry of the interior. No one knows how many people have been denied clearance. The situation seems out of control, and it is made more confused by the fact that some departments and enterprises that do not come under the lustration act have nevertheless chosen to screen their employees.

The lustration act has also been challenged. Ninety-nine members of Parliament recently voted to refer it to the Constitutional Court, following a ruling by the International Labor Organization that the law should be repealed or changed because it discriminates on the basis of political views and rules on the concept of collective guilt. No one, however, expects the Constitutional Court to hand down any decisions before the parliamentary elections that will take place this June.

Meanwhile, the Parliament is highly unlikely to consider any changes in the lustration law since it has been stopped from passing most new legislation by the current deadly stalemate between Czechs and Slovaks, which threatens to tear the country apart. Czechoslovakia is still operating under its old constitution of 1968; the long-awaited draft of a new constitution has yet to be submitted. In the meantime, constitutional amendments must be approved by three fifths of the elected deputies, regardless of whether they are present, and the large Slovak bloc is able to prevent major legislation from being passed merely by walking out. This has meant that five major proposals for reform by President Havel—including amendments to the lustration law and the election laws, and a referendum on national unity—have been defeated.

Prague is filled with rumors, gossip, suspicion, and fear, much of it based on false information from the StB files. The atmosphere is charged and unpleasant. Everyone with whom I met had a story to tell: about the man who informed on his brother; about the fellow worker whose job it was to tell the police about the sexual habits of everyone in the office; about the police informers in the Charter 77 movement—as many, I was told, as one out of every five members. I met with an old friend who had been exposed as a police collaborator. I had known him as a highly respected lawyer who defended dissidents when no one else would and who helped me plan my first visit to Czechoslovakia in 1979. I listened, wanting to believe what he told me was true—that he and the secret police were “engaged in general discussions about society,” that he had not informed on any of his colleagues.

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