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Human Rights in Prague

In response to:

Witch Hunt in Prague from the April 23, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

We read Jeri Laber’s article “Witch Hunt in Prague” [NYR, April 23] with great interest while we were in Prague studying the implementation in Czechoslovakia of the screening law, the so-called “lustration” process, for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. To our surprise, our observations and conclusions seem almost the opposite to Jeri Laber’s.

Unlike Ms. Laber, we found no evidence that “witch hunts against former Communists are now fiercely under way in Czechoslovakia.” The very term “witch hunt” is a misnomer in this context: unlike witches and unlike the subversives who, in Senator McCarthy’s febrile imagination, peopled the State Department, members of the Politburo and secret policemen did exist in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989. Czechs and Slovaks at every level know that the StB and its informers distorted their lives and preserved a totalitarian regime in power and four decades.

Lustration does not involve the collective persecution of communists. The vast bulk of members of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party will be unaffected by it, since they were not members of the highest organs of the Party or its coercive organs. Only the latter are to be refused the right to hold office for the next five years. Those identified as secret policemen or willing informers are not imprisoned, nor even are they sacked: They are demoted from their ranks to positions where they can no longer exercise initiative in the state administration—for instance, an Army Colonel who spied on his colleagues will be demoted to Major. (Their pension rights are not affected.)

Although Ms. Laber mentions meeting various well-known figures in Prague she does not seem to have discussed the lustration law with Jaroslav Basta, the chairman of the Independent Commission implementing it. Had she spoken with Mr. Basta, Ms. Laber’s fears might have been laid to rest. He is an eloquent advocate of the right of all individuals to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt. His commission’s use of forensic analysis to date and authenticate secret police documents, and its unwillingness to rely on the testimony of former StB agents, refute Ms. Laber’s assertion that the secret police “still rule, reaching out from the grave.” They make still more unlikely the speculative scenario that the StB in its years of untrammelled power concocted incriminating materials in order to damage the reputations of former dissidents after an unforseeable collapse of Communism.

We are surprised that Ms. Laber should regard the decision to exclude secret policemen and their informers from high office for a limited period as unjust. Most Czechs and Slovaks in our acquaintance are astonished by their own moderation: it should be remembered that the assets acquired by the old nomenklatura during its misrule, and now exploited to provide its members with a head start in the new market economy, are not subject to confiscation.

The main justification of the screening law is to protect the new democracy from corrupt and blackmailed bureaucrats rather than to punish the servants of the old regime. Since it is inherently shameful to have served as an informer, permitting such people to remain in responsible positions of public trust would lay them open to blackmail and by people (ex-StB agents, for instance) who knew their dubious secret. No democratic state can blithely employ people with a record of dishonorable service, however generous it may wish to be to its defeated enemies.

Ms. Laber cites huge numbers of people potentially affected by the law, but in practice about 200,000 people will be checked and so far about 40,000 holders of public office have been cleared. Only about 400 people have been denied a certificate by the Interior Ministry, but Mr. Basta thinks that up to 370 of these will be exonerated on the grounds that the mere listing of their names as collaborators with the secret police is not sufficient to prove willing complicity. They might have been regarded as candidates for recruitment or as useful but unwitting sources of information. Corroboration of agents’ status would involve, for instance, the discovery of records of payments by the StB to its listed informer and signed receipts for the money.

Unlike the Parliamentary Lustration Commission, which exposed thirteen people in 1991 as being among those listed at StB agents or informers, the Independent Commission set up by the lustration law seems well aware of the importance of not discussing individual cases with the press, even on an “off-the-record” basis. Precisely because the Commission does not publicize the outcome of appeals against a negative lustration certificate, individuals barred from holding office by its decisions are often able to leave their place of employment and find another job without suffering any public obloquy. For instance many judges now find it attractive to leave this bench and work as legal advisers to foreign investors. This makes it very difficult to identify convincingly a judge who retires as an ex-informer. In any case the numbers negatively lustrated are very few and likely to decline as privatization of state industry reduces the number of jobs affected by the screening process.

The general tone of Ms. Laber’s article denigrates the democracy of Czechoslovakia. This is more than regrettable, given the influential journal in which her comments appeared. Like her, we admire the civic and physical courage of the tiny number of active dissidents in Eastern Europe before 1989, but we cannot endorse the view that the great bulk of the population, the “gray zone,” has no right to prevail in politics if their wishes clash with the preferences of the handful of former dissidents. Surely the key right for which the Charter 77 activists struggled was for a society in which the expression of political ideas and the shaping of public policy would no longer be the prerogatives of self-proclaimed and self-selecting elites, but instead one in which everyone, the brave and the cowardly or the defiant could have their say without fear or favor.

The very fact that Ms. Laber is able to quote prominent politicians including the Foreign Minister, Jirí Dienstbier, as condemning the law, suggests that, far from being in the grip of a persecutory psychosis, Czechoslovakia enjoys a remarkably normal political debate for a society emerging from five decades of totalitarian rule and foreign occupation.

Christine Stone
Mark Almond
The British Helsinki Human Rights Group
Oxford, England

Jeri Laber replies:

Of course, I have no wish to “denigrate the democracy of Czechoslovakia.” My contribution to the debate on the “lustration” law reflects my belief that democracy will prevail in Czechoslovakia, and that it is possible to change the atmosphere of fear, hatred, and distrust that the law has engendered by taking responsibility for the punishment of past abuses out of the hands of politicians. The law has now been referred to the Constitutional Court, and it is my hope that it will be reversed there and that the people of Czechoslovakia will survive this painful period of transition and emerge with an open society based on justice and mutual trust.

I fully recognize the frustration and anger of Czech and Slovak citizens who see former Communists not only retaining their hold on the bureaucracy but prospering. At the same time, I remember the old days when people in the “gray zone” who are now seeking vengeance would cross the street rather than greet a former colleague who had signed Charter 77. Too many people in Communist Czechoslovakia were implicated in that hateful system. Rather than judge, they should seek a general healing.

Ms. Stone and Mr. Almond put their faith in Jaroslav Basta, chairman of the commission implementing the lustration law. Mr. Basta, they claim, “is an eloquent advocate of the right of all individuals to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt.” They believe that he would put my fears to rest. But is there not something wrong with a law whose fairness depends on the good intentions of the person currently in charge of carrying it out?

Moreover, Ms. Stone and Mr. Almond go on to point out that “only” about 400 people have been denied certificates by the Interior Ministry and that “up to” 370 of them will eventually be exonerated since they may have been only candidates for recruitment or “unwitting sources of information” for the secret police. Thus, they acknowledge that the law presumes categories of people guilty until proven innocent. They fail to mention the hardships and unjustice that these people must be suffering in the interim.

The lustration law, incidentally, does not deal only with high-level officials and secret police agents, as Ms. Stone and Mr. Almond appear to believe. It includes those who belonged to other groups, including the People’s Militia, which had hundreds of thousands of members. Ms. Stone and Mr. Almond say that about 200,000 people will be checked. The International Labor Organization, on the other hand, has estimated that as many as a million people may be affected by the law.

Dealing with the Communist past is a complicated matter, to be sure. This is not a witch hunt without witches. But is it not better to bring cases against people who are believed to be responsible for specific violations of human rights rather than to persecute innocent people for crimes they may not have committed? This is especially true when one considers the social price that is being paid at a time when it is essential for the people of Czechoslovakia to work together for a better life.

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