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Czech Republic/Slovakia: Charter 77 Marks 20th Anniversary

  • Jolyon Naegele



Prague, 2 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - January 1, 1997 marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Czechoslovak human rights document, Charter 77.

Contrary to its reputation, Charter 77 was neither an organization nor a movement but rather a petition calling on Czechoslovakia's communist authorities to respect the international human rights agreements they had signed.

The principles of civic responsibility, political ethics, tolerance and precedence of morals over politics guided Charter 77. It was drafted in secret in late 1976, initially signed by some 300 people, mainly dissidents, and released to foreign correspondents in January 1977.

The authors and original signatories were a diverse group of people. They ranged from a former Communist party politburo member, Zdenek Mlynar, and an ex-Communist Foreign Minister, Jiri Hajek -- both of whom had been toppled from power after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 -- to Christian-oriented philosophers such as Jan Patocka, Vaclav Benda and outlawed priest Vaclav Maly -- and banned playwright Vaclav Havel.

Havel, Hajek and Patocka were Charter 77's first three spokesmen. But Patocka died following secret police interrogation several days after its publication.

Relatively few Slovak dissidents signed Charter 77. The leader of the 1968 Prague Spring reforms, Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak, never signed the document. Nor did the leading Catholic dissident Jan Carnogursky -- who served as Czechoslovak prime minister in 1991-92 -- in part because it was largely Czech-oriented and because, as Carnogursky put it at the time, "I don't want to be a part of their little games." But the leading ethnic Hungarian dissident in Slovakia, Miklos Duray, did sign, apparently seeing Charter as a counterbalance to anti-Hungarian sentiment among many Slovaks.

The Communist authorities responded to Charter 77's publication with what was known as the "anti-charter" campaign. They forced the public to sign a petition denouncing Charter 77 and its authors and pressured prominent personalities to attend a gala denunciation at the National Theater, compromising them in the eyes of many Czechs and Slovaks.

The Communist-run secret police (StB) persecuted virtually all the signatories -- harassing them, ensuring they were fired from their jobs, forcing some to emigrate and imprisoning others. Those imprisoned included Havel, who went on to lead the "Velvet Revolution" that peacefully ended communist rule seven years ago.

Ten years after its publication, barely more than 1,000 people had signed the document, of whom only about one-quarter were active dissidents. Most Czechs were only able to read the Charter at the end of 1989, when students plastered it on walls during the Velvet Revolution.

Among the original signatories who chose exile rather than face further harassment was Ivan Medek, a music editor, who went on to become Charter 77's spokesman to the outside world from his flat in Vienna. Today, at age 70 and back in Prague, Medek is Chancellor of the Office of the President of the Czech Republic.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL in his office in Prague Castle, Medek said he emigrated after he was attacked and beaten by the Secret Police, who took him to a forest where, he says, they left him unconscious. After returning home, Medek says he decided he would be of better use to Charter 77 abroad than in Prague and took advantage of an offer of asylum for persecuted Czechoslovak dissidents by Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.

Charter 77's spokesmen passed on their documents and those of the "Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted" to Medek through a variety of channels. Medek then passed these documents and related news to the main Czech- and Slovak-language foreign broadcasters -- RFE/RL, VOA, BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Vatican -- as well as to the main news agencies with bureaus in Vienna.

In the early 1980s, communications between Prague and the West eased considerably with the opening of a high-capacity telephone link. That effectively disabled secret police attempts to monitor and prevent telephone communications between Charter 77 activists and the outside world.

As a result, news phoned by Charter 77 to Medek in the morning was processed and passed on to the radios for broadcast to millions of listeners in Czechoslovakia the same evening. This was a considerable step forward in public information from the days of samizdat, when hard-to-read carbon copies of Charter documents circulated in Prague for weeks or months, reaching just a few hundred people, and eventually making their way to Vienna.

Medek says that, surprisingly, the only time the secret police succeeded in spreading disinformation via Charter 77 concerned the alleged death of a student during a demonstration on November 17, 1989. News of the alleged death was channeled through reliable sources, but eventually proved to be false. Nonetheless, its diffusion sparked mass demonstrations, the establishment of the Civic Forum mass movement by Charter 77 signers and others, and the speedy collapse of Communist rule.

Medek says uniting fundamental democratic ideals about the protection of human rights, freedoms and tolerance, and not letting differences of opinion get in the way of ensuring common goals, are Charter 77's legacy for today's Czech Republic.

Numerous Charter 77 signers entered government or were elected to parliament after the Velvet Revolution. But most went down to electoral defeat in 1992. In addition to Havel, the only other Charter 77 signers in senior positions in the Czech leadership today are Interior Minister Jan Ruml, and the newly-elected speaker of the Senate, Petr Pithart.
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