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Witch Hunt in Prague

In response to:

Witch Hunt in Prague from the April 23, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Jeri Laber writes that the “lustration law,” recently passed by the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, “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” [“Witch Hunt in Prague,” NYR, April 23].

This emotive language completely misrepresents the law in question, and is calculated to make wholly false comparisons with the laws of previous regimes in this country. First, the idea of “collective guilt” is entirely inappropriate. When someone joins the Mafia and willingly carries out its instructions, he is guilty as an individual. Mafia trials are not trials of collective guilt, even if a “group” (the Mafia) is an essential part of the crime.

Second, nobody is punished under the lustration law—there are neither jail sentences, nor fines, nor deprivation of civil rights attached to it, merely the exclusion from certain high offices. All governments (including yours in the US) assume the right to exclude people from certain sensitive positions, on the basis of past associations—including membership of the Communist or Nazi parties. Why should not we, who have suffered under the Communists for forty years, assume such a right, when the people are scandalized to see their former oppressors still enjoying the fruits of power?

Third, Ms. Laber writes as though the “groups” in question were simply clubs which people joined, and which may have involved them in no reprehensible actions whatsoever. Suppose she wrote of the SS or even the IRA in such a way: would her words carry conviction? Yet she knows our country, and knows something of what the secret police, and the decision-making bodies in the Communist party did to us. Not only were they agents of a foreign power, obeying instructions from Moscow; they operated in complete contempt for law and morality, in order to brutalize and intimidate whoever, in their view, stood in need of such treatment. Are we now simply to acquiesce, when we find that they are still in charge?

Finally, it is untrue that the law applies regardless of what activities people engaged in, or how “tenuous” their actions may have been. People are treated differently, according to whether they were agents, informers, or merely contacts of the secret police—and in each case it is for the Ministry of the Interior to prove the charge.

Ms. Laber’s article gives the unjust—and indeed hurtful—impression that our country is undergoing some kind of McCarthyite psychosis. The fact is that our revolution against the cruel social experiment that the Communists conducted here has been neither violent nor vengeful. The “lustration law” is simply one part of the long and difficult process of re-establishing justice and legality in a country that has been without them for forty years.

Pavel Bratinka
Vice-Chairman
Foreign Affairs Committee
Federal Assembly

Daniel Kroupa
Vice-Chairman
ODA (Civic Democratic Alliance)

Vlaldimir Dlouhý
Federal Minister of Economy
Prague, Czechoslovakia

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