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 during the Prague Spring. It is with some irony that the Charter people refer to it as our Dienstbier committee (as opposed to their Dienstbier committee): “Creating another new human rights committee was not enough; they’ve also found themselves another Dienstbier.”

Two members of “their” Dienstbier committee accompanied us to the Ministry of Justice for a 10 AM Monday morning meeting with the minister. We were joined by the sixth member of our group, Dr. Jirí Hájek, chairman of the recently founded Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee, which is an affiliate of our International Helsinki Federation. Dr. Hájek, now seventy-six years old, has had a long and admirable career. He was a resistance fighter during World War II, foreign minister under Alexander Dubcek, and one of the three original spokesmen for Charter 77. When Dr. Flegl, the acting chairman of the Dienstbier Committee, received a letter from us listing Dr. Hájek as one of the participants in our delegation, he hastened to warn Dr. Hájek, before our arrival in Prague, that he would not be welcome at the Ministry of Justice. But we insisted that he accompany us; one of our basic principles is that representatives of national committees should always be present at meetings with officials in their own countries.

Earlier experience in Moscow* had taught us to make this policy clear in advance, and we had done so in the case of Dr. Hájek. Yet at the ministry we were told that Dr. Hájek’s name was not on the list that we had submitted and, to our astonishment, Dr. Flegl, who had warned Dr. Hájek just a few days before, concurred with the ministry officials. It was the first of many times during that week that the nightmarish fantasies of Prague’s most famous writer came to mind.


Our refusal to meet the minister of justice without Dr. Hájek led to the subsequent cancellation of all other meetings with government officials. Nonetheless, accompanied by four members of our Czechoslovak affiliate—Jirí Hájek, Ladislav Lis, Václav Maly, and Rita Klimova—we held formal meetings with the Dienstbier Committee and later with representatives of the official Czechoslovak Peace Committee. The Dienstbier group listened to our concerns about the recent repression, then said: “We are very new. We are being flooded. We are just setting up.” They asked for our patience, expressing good will and a conditional willingness to engage in joint activities with the local Helsinki group.

But it was in our meetings with activists—including many Charter 77 people, who have been kept under tight surveillance for many years, ostracized by society, and prevented from having private contacts with visitors from the West—that the change in atmosphere was most evident. In Prague in the past, I have always had to meet with people alone or in tiny groups, to speak in hushed tones, and to avoid mentioning specific names, dates, or places in any public reports I made. This time, we held a business meeting with members of the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee in an ordinary restaurant, where we discussed reports in progress, future plans, and organizational matters. We invited large groups of friends to dinner in various restaurants. We met in private apartments with young activists who are facing charges and with the relatives of people who are imprisoned. Five years ago I was escorted by the police to the border for “visiting dissidents and members of Charter 77.” Now I found myself calling those very people from my (presumably bugged) hotel room without fearing for their safety. Indeed, they visited my hotel freely; they dropped by at breakfast time, and had afternoon tea with us in the oldworld lobby.

Erika (a pseudonym) was the first person I saw when I arrived. It was a meeting with her that may have led to my expulsion from Czechoslovakia in 1983, and ever since I have referred to her in print as “Erika” in order to protect her identity. Over the years we have become good friends. Erika has complex family ties to the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, but it is her reserve, her delicate sensibility, her thoughtfulness, and her passionate attachment to her country that I have especially come to value. She is avidly curious about the outside world and, in the past, she would question me in detail about what was going on in the world, about literature and philosophy, seeking information that she was denied as a Czechoslovak citizen. This time, I found, she had her own views to express, rather than questions to ask, and about everything from Salman Rushdie, to Soviet glasnost, to Israel’s behavior on the West Bank. She and other intellectuals who have been deprived of information all these years have recently been liberated from their isolation by the end of the jamming of Radio Free Europe, which they affectionately call “Prague 3.” In addition, news can be found in the official newspapers and journals imported from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary. This is fallout from glasnost, and the Czechoslovak authorities have been unable to prevent it.

Erika works at a tedious office job with no opportunity to use her many gifts. She is now in her late forties. “Before, I used to think that a time would come when I could make a second career. Now, I know that it is too late.”

A bearded man, also in his forties, introduced himself to me at an afternoon gathering the next day and seemed more optimistic. “I am not active in any group,” he explained. “I am a historian who works as a window cleaner. After twenty years, I guess I’m more window cleaner than historian.” He went on to explain that for the first time in many years he feels that he and other disenfranchised historians are emerging “from the ghetto.” “The semiofficial types are willing to work with us now. Things are much better. The change has been gradual, of course; both sides have to get used to it.” Then, apparently realizing the incongruity of sounding so positive in view of the current arrests and trials, he added: “On the one hand, it’s better; on the other, we think of [the possibility of going to] prison much more.” And a woman who had joined our conversation added: “I carry a toothbrush with me all the time, and a pair of panties.”

“The government is playing it both ways, with an eye on Gorbachev,” Dr. Hájek explained. “Everyone is being cautious. They don’t know which way things will go.” Several people reported that it had been hard to find a judge willing to preside over Václav Havel’s trial, because no judge wanted to be involved in such a highly publicized case. “Gorbachev has his own problems, plenty of them,” I was told. “He may not care about the Czechs, but the Czechs care about Gorbachev.”


The Czechoslovak leadership, put in power by the Soviets in 1969, is now being undercut by Soviet policies. The government cannot allow the freedom of glasnost, since its continued existence depends on repression. It cannot acknowledge the need for perestroika: it has no Brezhnev to blame for the state of the economy, no “period of stagnation.” According to official ideology, the “normalization” that followed the crushing of Prague Spring represents progress and enlightenment for which the present leadership takes credit. Meanwhile, the economy continues to deteriorate. Erika observed: “There is always a shortage of something, and you can’t predict what it will be—toilet paper, sanitary napkins, cocoa, carrots, garlic. At Christmas the shops were half empty. More and more things are unavailable and for longer times…. Maybe they just don’t care what happens after they are gone.”

About half a million people who had taken an active part in the reforms of the 1960s lost their jobs, power, and status after the Soviet invasion. They and their families, perhaps a million people out of a population of 15 million, have been an oppressed minority for twenty years, shunned by neighbors and former coworkers, prevented from meeting with foreigners, forced to work at menial jobs, their children deprived of higher education. Yet they have maintained a remarkable élan and cohesiveness, and their dignity and high principles have earned them much respect, within and outside their country.

The jobs from which they were dismissed were filled by others who seized the opportunity to advance their careers; many of these were young and untrained for the responsible positions they still occupy. Now, twenty years later, a new generation is coming of age in a country that is “going downhill so quickly you can see it deteriorating.” Deprived of upward mobility, aware of greater freedoms just beyond the borders, dismayed at their own lack of prosperity or prospects, many Czechoslovaks who previously took few risks are speaking out. The recent series of demonstrations that so alarmed the authorities and resulted in the current crackdown were, to a large extent, spontaneous, and involved young people previously unknown to the Charter 77 leaders. These young people belong to new groups, like the “Independent Peace Association,” “Unijazz,” “Czech Children,” and the “John Lennon Peace Club.” Some are involved in rock groups, or are engaged in publishing underground magazines. Thanks to the authorities, they are getting to know each other in prison cells, in collective trials, in joint efforts to defend their imprisoned members.

In the living room of a prominent Charter activist I met the mother and four-year-old son of Hana Marvanova, twenty-six years old, who has been held in Prague’s Ruzyne prison since October 1988, charged for her activities in the Independent Peace Association. She is accused of “preparing to commit incitement.” As a single mother, she has asked three times to be released while awaiting trial, but her requests have been refused.

Maria Marvanova, Hana’s mother, is looking after her grandson, who would otherwise have been sent to an institution. He does not know that his mother is in prison. He attends kindergarten, and his grandmother, a widow and a teacher, brings him to school each day, traveling two hours every morning and evening in a trip that requires her to transfer from one bus or tram to another five times each way.

Maria Marvanova has not been allowed to see Hana since her arrest. She has written her forty-nine letters, all but one of which Hana has received. “I write amusing letters and try not to complain,” she said.

Maria described her daughter, a lawyer who had an excellent record at school and in her legal examinations: “She had all that it takes for a fine career. The path she chose was her own and does not reflect the influence of others…. I completely identify with her decision and with her ideas and opinions. She is a source of great happiness. I have always tried to live with a clear conscience. Hana is the child I always wanted to have.”

And Hana? “People have criticized her,” her mother explained, “saying that she should have thought more about her child. In her last letter she wrote to me: ‘Often people try to hide behind their children, to use them as an excuse not to do anything. But I believe that a person cannot do more for his child than to live with a clear conscience.”‘

Hana Marvanova’s trial ended on March 17. She received a ten-month suspended sentence but remains in prison because the prosecutor has appealed both the verdict and the court’s decision to release her pending appeal.

On Wednesday morning a phone call came from Dr. Flegl, announcing that we had permission to observe the trial of Ivan Jirous and Jirí Tichý, scheduled for the next day in the town of Jihlava. Jirous and Tichý were both charged with the crime of “incitement.” They faced sentences of up to five years. Jirous, a forty-four-year-old art historian and poet, is a popular folk hero to young people and has been held in prison since October; Tichý, a forty-one-year old art critic, was also arrested in October, but was released in December pending trial.

We left at 6 AM the next morning in a heavy rainstorm and drove to Jihlava, a town of no particular distinction about two hours from Prague. The corridors of the courthouse were already filled with Jirous supporters, some fifty to sixty young people whose clothes and hair styles were reminiscent of the Sixties. Throughout the trial they milled about the corridor, eager for our reports during the break, cheering each time they caught a glimpse of the handcuffed defendant as he was led across an interior courtyard to and from the courtroom.

The courtroom was small, accommodating twenty-six spectators. In the first row, behind the defendants, were the three observers in our group, a Reuters correspondent from Vienna, and a representative of the US Embassy. In front of us were three judges, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a stenographer; before them sat the defendants, each with a policeman at his side. Between 8:30 AM and 1 PM the evidence was presented and the defendants were questioned and given an opportunity to defend themselves. One witness was called and the testimony of others was read into the record. At 1 PM the attorneys began their summations. At 2 the court was recessed. The judge announced in a matter-of-fact manner that there would be a verdict at 3.

It was an extraordinary scene: a somber exercise in legal propriety, revolving around a single petition drafted by the defendants and signed by 271 people. True, it was a strongly worded document: it held the government responsible for many deaths. It raised the case of Pavel Wonka, who died last year in custody. It asked that all political prisoners be released. It asked that doctors’ groups, Amnesty International, and the International Helsinki Federation be allowed to monitor prison conditions. It asked, in other words, for many of the things that we have been urging in our own reports and documents.

The petition did not call for violence and had no obvious results, other than the arrests of its authors. For Jirous, the main drafter of the petition, the prosecutor demanded the stiffest sentence permitted: four to five years of imprisonment. To judge from comments made during the break, it was assumed that the prosecutor would prevail.

At 3:05 the judges returned. TV cameras suddenly appeared, focusing bright lights on the faces of the defendants, recording their first reactions as the verdicts were read. The sentences were lighter than had been expected: sixteen months for Jirous, six months for Tichý. The defendants said that they would appeal.

After the trial, we drove to Vienna, arriving after dark. It was a jolt to see Vienna’s sparkling skyline as it came into view. My thoughts were back in Prague in the dark, anachronistic beauty of its silent streets. It now seems a mistake to say that Czechoslovakia is one of the most repressed countries of the Eastern bloc. The lid may be very tight in Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany, but in Czechoslovakia it is slowly being lifted by the remarkable spirit of people who are willing to risk prison to put the regime on the defensive.

This Issue

April 27, 1989