The participating states will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, for all. . . . They confirm the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field. —Extract from the 1975 Helsinki declaration
One dissident described it as a step back toward “the ideological Stone Age” and, while some of the more obvious touches of the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s were missing— the hearings were secret, the sentences somewhat less severe—there was still enough of the old-style, heavy-handed approach about the jailing in Prague last week of six leading human-rights campaigners to bring down a chorus of international protest on the country that once promoted “socialism with a human face.”
The powerful Communist parties of Italy, France and Spain joined governments and labor movements in the West in denouncing the verdicts and sentences as a mockery of human rights and legal procedures. France called off a visit by its foreign minister to Prague and the U.S. state department said the trial—the biggest of its kind in Eastern Europe in recent years—would adversely affect relations with Czechoslovakia. In Moscow, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, himself a leading dissident, described the six as brave and humane people and called on Czechoslovakia’s leaders to review their sentences.
In part, the furore was a reaction against the blatantly arbitrary manner in which the trial was conducted. The atmosphere inside the Austro-Hungarian-style Prague City Court, a handsome, 19th-century building, blended Kafkaesque bureaucracy with some of the old show trial techniques. Police mingled with the onlookers and, on the first day, some 25 young Charter ’77 movement sympathizers (the six were leading Chartists) were detained. The nearest Western diplomats and other foreign observers got to the courtroom was a set of firmly closed glass doors on the building’s second-floor landing. The trial itself was held in a small courtroom at the other end of a long corridor.
According to relatives of the accused, who were allowed to occupy some of the 18 seats available for spectators, the prosecution made little effort to prove its case. It called just four witnesses. The presiding judge refused to hear a single witness for the defence and constantly interrupted speeches by the defendants and their court-appointed lawyers. The proceedings against the six, who had been held in pretrial custody for five months, were rushed through in two 12-hour sessions. Symbolically, the day they were found guilty Prague’s sunny weather gave way to cloudy skies and cold winds.
The best known abroad of the defendants was Vaclav Havel, 43, widely regarded as Czechoslovakia’s greatest living playwright. He received a 4Vèyear sentence. One of the three original spokesmen for Charter ’77, which was founded to monitor Czechoslovakia’s compliance with the Helsinki declaration, he has been in and out of jail and under house arrest since the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. He worked for a time as a laborer in a brewery after losing his job as a theatre producer. His plays, such as The Garden Party and Audience, have been described as “Orwellian-type criticisms of life in a totalitarian state.”
The biographies of the others—Petr Uhl, 38 (five years), Vaclav Benda, 32 (four years), Jiri Dienstbier, 42 (three years), journalist Otta Bednarova, 52 (three years), and psychologist Dana Nemcova, 45 (two years suspended)— similarly reflect the fate of Czechs who have opposed the “normalization” of their country since the 1968 invasion.
All six were members of an inner circle of Charter ’77—the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS). This group passed to the West details of unpublicized trials of workers and young people in Czechoslovakia. The authorities were undoubtedly embarrassed by such reports and wanted to put a stop to them.
Czechoslovakia’s hard-line attitude presents a marked contrast with the more conciliatory approach favored by neighboring Hungary and Poland. Even East Germany, which has the reputation of the most authoritarian of Sovietbloc states, recently announced a wideranging amnesty covering political prisoners.
Part of the explanation for the crackdown seems to lie in the somewhat precarious position of Czechoslovakia’s leader, Gustav Husak. A colleague of the reformist Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring, he switched sides after the invasion and relied on the support of the hard-line faction in the country’s leadership to remain in power. Thus, unlike the skilful Hungarian leader Janos Kadar, who gradually relaxed controls following the bloody suppression of the 1956 Budapest uprising, Husak has been forced to take ever more repressive measures to maintain his position.
The sentences also come against a background of a growing economic crisis. A series of price increases this summer has meant that many Czechs are now worse off than before—a serious development when the regime’s main claim to legitimacy was its ability to guarantee steadily increasing living standards for ordinary people.
unnoupeK said uzecnosiovaxia am not intend to curry favor abroad “by tolerating the disruption of the republic by a few enemies of socialism.” It was an uncompromising rebuttal—and a bad omen for four more Chartists still in jail awaiting trial.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.