Fighting Back in Prague

The opportunity arose quite suddenly: a delegation organized by the International Helsinki Federation was offered a chance to meet with the ministers of justice and the interior in Czechoslovakia. We wanted to put to the ministers our concerns about the recent wave of arrests, indictments, and trials in Czechoslovakia affecting scores of activists, including Václav Havel, the celebrated playwright and human rights champion who was sentenced to nine months in prison on February 21. His statement to the court is reprinted on page 41. (On March 21, his sentence was reduced to eight months in a less severe type of prison, and his status has been changed to make him eligible for parole in May.)

Our hastily assembled group visited Prague during the week of March 5. The five of us—one each from the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States—had all been part of a group that had made an unprecedented—and, it now seemed, precedent-setting—visit to Moscow in January 1988, where we spent a week discussing human-rights concerns with high-level Soviet officials. The Moscow meeting had taken place in the dead of winter but in an atmosphere that reflected the new warmth generated by glasnost. In Prague, where this winter has been one of the mildest on record, the chill of persecution is worse than it has been at any time since the VONS trials of 1979.

The people in prison awaiting trial, some since October, had been arrested for participating in demonstrations or for other independent activities. Two political trials were scheduled to take place during the week that we were in Prague. New laws have been passed that further restrict the rights of citizens. Officials have announced that fifty-four people are yet to be charged for activities related to January’s “Palach week,” five days of demonstrations by activists who had initially attempted to lay flowers on the site where Jan Palach, twenty years before, had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion.

Emerging from the airport into the Prague sunlight after a meticulous hourlong search of my luggage by customs officials, I expected to encounter a mood of sadness and dejection among my Prague friends. I found, instead, a more combative, independent, and generally optimistic attitude than I have encountered in Czechoslovakia during the other visits I have made there in the past ten years.

The meetings with the ministers never took place. These had been arranged by a new, officially sanctioned Committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs that had declared its existence in Prague on Human Rights Day on December 10, 1988. Such committees have recently sprung up throughout the Eastern bloc in what appears to be government-inspired efforts to take over the functions of long-established “dissident” groups. The group in Czechoslovakia is known as the “Dienstbier Committee,” after its chairman, a medical doctor named Zdenek Dienstbier. The name is somewhat irksome to Charter 77, the persecuted Czechoslovak human rights group, among whose leading members is Jirí Dienstbier, a prominent journalist…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.