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Havel's imprisonment: fueling demands for Czech reform.

The gusts of glasnost and perestroika blowing out of Mikhail Gorbachev's Moscow have reached Czechoslovakia and made its rulers shiver. Like true Brezhnevites, they have reacted with a dose of repression, but this time with a difference. The crackdown has been accompanied by a series of liberalizing moves, revealing conflict and confusion within the regime over how to deal with this new reality.

The most notorious action was the conviction of the noted playwright and human rights activist Vaclav Havel in February, just after Czechoslovakia had initiated the Vienna Concluding Agreement, refining and expanding the 1975 Helsinki Accords on basic human rights. Havel was prosecuted for some January radio broadcasts in which he allegedly incited people to hold an illegal memorial for Jan Palach, who burned himself to death twenty years ago in protest over the Soviet invasion of his country, and for interference with the police at a memorial rally a week later.

The case against Havel was so contrived and flimsy that even the judge remarked on its weakness. As Havel said in his appeal a month later, "The verdict would have been far more honest had it merely stated, 'Vaclav Havel, you are getting on our nerves, and so you will go to prison for nine months.'"

The outrage at Havel's conviction spilled far beyond the usual circles. Approximately 3,000 members of Czechoslovakia's official artistic and scientific community signed a petition in support of Havel, the first time those establishment types have made such a protest. Charter 77 has learned of government instructions to harass those who signed. Poland allowed two of Havel's plays to be staged the week of his trial, the first performances of his work there since 1981, when martial law was imposed; Primier Mieczyslaw Rakowski attended.

On appeal, Havel's sentence was reduced from nine months to eight and he was given a mider prison regimen, making him eligible for release on May 15, two weeks before a session of the Helsinki Accord signatories in Paris. Czechoslovakia will thus be able to avoid the embarrassment of having a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in prison for an innocuous broadcast when it discusses human rights.

In the international focus on Havel, however, many others whom the regime has persecuted, in some cases more harshly, have been overlooked:

[sections] Jana Petrova, 22, of the Independent Peace Association, and Ota Veverka, 32, of the John Lennon Peace Club, were tried with five others on charges growing out of the Palach memorial in January. The seven had gone to place flowers at the spot where Palach killed himself, and for this they were charged with "hooliganism." Even though the prosecutor admitted his witnesses were weak, all seven defendants were convicted on February 22. Petrova got nine months in prison and Veverka twelve; the others received suspended sentences and fines.

[sections] Ivan Jirous, 45, a revered poet, philosopher and publisher of samizdat, was sentenced on March 9 to sixteen months' imprisonment for "attacking a state organ" and "harming the interest of the Republic abroad" by circulating a petition that blamed the authorities for the April 1988 death in prison of activist Pavel Wonka and called for reform of the Czechoslovak penal code and release of political prisoners. His co-defendant, Jiri Tichy, received six months.

[sections] Hana Marvanovna and Tomas Dvorak, members of the Independent Peace Association, were convicted of "preparation for incitement" on March 17 in connection with rallies last year. They have been in jail since last October, despite being given suspended sentences, because the prosecutor appealed and asked for their continued detention pending the outcome of the appeal.

There have been also innumerable detentions ranging from a few hours to almost five days; beatings; house searches; confiscation of writings, typewriters and books; and hugely increased penalties for ignoring police orders to move -- up to 20,000 crowns, the equivalent of almost seven months' average wages.

Repression is of course not new to Czechoslovakia. Many Czechs and Slovaks have spent years in prison for such things as criticizing the government, writing poetry that is considered insulting to public officials, running for public office and informing Westerners about prison conditions. What is new is the reason for the current wave of repression -- the awakening of the population from twenty years of torpor.

When I was in Czechoslovakia a year ago, there were few signs of protest beyond some demands for religious freedom and the activities of some courageous individuals, including the 1,200 to 1,300 signatories of Charter 77. Something happened during the next few months, however, and particularly to young people. It has often been noted that 1988 was the year of the "double eights." Many of the great events in Czechoslovak history occurred in years ending with "8": the creation of the modern democratic state in 1918; Munich in 1938; the Communist takeover in 1948; and the bloom and demise of the Prague Spring in 1968. The authorities were nervous, I was told last year, and as the second half of 1988 got under way, it turned out that they had good reason to be.

The twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion on August 21 provided the flashpoint. To everyone's amazement, thousand's demonstrated in Prague. Many were young people, whom Alexander Dubcek, Communist Party General Secretary at the time of the invasion, called "the children of 1968": One 21-year-old demonstrator had been in a protest against the invasion when she was only three weeks old. The police responded to the August 21 events with brutality and numerous house searches and arrests.

That did not stop the aroused Czechoslovaks, however. Two relatively new groups, the Independent Peace Association and the Czech Children, announced a meeting shortly thereafter, on September 23 at the foot of the statue of Saint Wenceslas, to discuss the current problems. When several hundred people showed up, the police arrested many and forcibly removed them to the police station for interrogation.

On October 15 the Movement for Civil Liberties was formed. Its manifesto, signed by 120 of Czechoslovakia's most prominent human rights activists, called for political action to reshape the legal system, protect the rights to speech and belief, foster political and economic pluralism and save the environment. It also demanded the removal of Soviet troops. The police reacted by arresting many of the signatories in the early hours of October 27 and holding them for up to ninety-six hours while searching their homes and confiscating books, typewriters and other personal property. The following day some 5,000 people gathered at Wenceslas Square to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic. Police attacked them with water cannons, tear gas, truncheons and dogs and arrested nearly a hundred people.

A number of groups, including Charter 77, then planned an international symposium for November 11 to discuss how events in Czechoslovakia during the past seventy years have affected European history. Many distinguished foreign visitors came to Prague for the conference. But beginning November 10 some thirty-eight activists were put under house arrest to prevent the seminar from taking place. It was nevertheless hastily opened by Vaclav Havel -- who was grabbed by the police within seconds.

A series of incidents this January was the most extended and spontaneous, and drew the harshest responses. On January 15, twenty-six people ventured to Wenceslas Square to lay flowers at the site of Jen Palach's self-immolation. They were intercepted by the police on their way to the subway and forced to turn back. The next day eight of them returned to place the flowers and were promptly arrested; a policeman later admitted in court that his orders were to arrest anyone who laid flowers, even peacefully. Havel was also arrested, though only a bystander.

That set off a week of daily spontaneous demonstrations during which police again used water cannons, truncheons and dogs, and made numerous arrests. Thursday, January 19, was a particularly brutal day. According to 21-year-old Sona Louzenska, "The security police were beating anyone who happened to get in their way; they were also pulling people out of the streetcars and beat one elderly man, who was walking peacefully toward the streetcar. I, together with some other people in the crowd, was pulled out and taken in handcuffs to the police station in Bartolomejska Street, where we were yelled at, beaten and kicked. Later we were ordered to stand facing the wall, with legs spread out and raised arms. We were not allowed to turn or move -- otherwise we were beaten. The police handled young men between the ages of 14 and 20 especially brutally." Despite this harsh reaction, the demonstrations continued through Saturday.

Repression has not been the regime's only response, however. Obviously perplexed, Czechoslovakia's rulers have tried a few liberalizing measures. They have allowed some public meetings to be held, including one on Human Rights Day, December 10. They have stopped jamming Radio Free Europe. The Independent Peace Association is being permitted to meet publicly. The Czechoslovak press was allowed to publish the full text of the Polish agreements legalizing Solidarity. Some of the priests who were denied permits to practice because of their association with Charter 77 have had the permits temporarily restored. A few dissidents have actually been acquitted by the courts, and the sentencing seems more lenient.

The Havel case is perhaps the best example of the regime's floundering. There was plainly no basis for charging him, for Havel had done nothing remotely illegal, even by the elastic standards of the Czechoslovak penal law. The purpose of the prosecution, according to several observers, was to make it clear that no matter what happens in the Soviet Union, Poland or Hungary, the old bosses are still in charge in Czechoslovakia. Instead, the case set off an avalanche of criticism both at home and abroad, which probably forced the government to reduce Havel's sentence.

The Czechoslovak old guard is likely to face even more trouble, for the economy is in danger. For years Czechoslovakia had one of the few healthy economies in the Soviet bloc. This was the basis of the social contract: In return for economic well-being, the heirs of 1968 would be left alone to run the country, without much resistance, and the Czechoslovak people would concentrate on their private lives.

The sins of Soviet bloc economics are catching up with Czechoslovakia, though. In December office workers had their usual Christmas benuses delayed a month because there were not enough consumer goods on the shelves to satisfy demand. In November, to conserve such goods, Czechoslovakia imposed a ban on taking a variety of products out of the country, much to the annoyance of its Eastern bloc neighbors who had been coming to Czechoslovakia to shop. Technological backwardness is everywhere. According to one observer, a hospital even in central Prague is only at the level of a 1960s London hospital. The Institute for Forecasting of the Academy of Sciences found that there has been too little investment in the economy; machinery is rundown and there is a shortage of spare parts. What investment there is has gone into heavy high-energy industries, which have had a devastating effect on the environment. If things get much worse, discontent and resistance will inevitably rise.

"An electric tension has struck the society," said Vaclav Havel in an interview last October. "It is becoming more restless, it is becoming more interested in everything; people are more daring, they are overcoming their fear, as if they were awakening from that long apathy, which lasted so many years." One of the defendants in the flower trial said to me, "The police brutality hasn't intimidated anyone. During that week [in January] our self-confidence rose steadily."

Czechoslovakia's Communist Party leaders know this and are frightened. They hold office only because of the Soviet rape of their country in 1968 and fear -- rightly -- that any significant loosening will dump them all into history's garbage can, for their unpopularity is monumental. Whether they will be able to hold off an upsurge of resentment and a yearning for democracy and freedom no one can comfortably predict.
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Title Annotation:Vaclav Havel
Author:Schwartz, Herman
Publication:The Nation
Date:May 15, 1989
Words:2013
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