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Czech Republic: Documenting Crimes Of The Communist Past

  • Kitty McKinsey

Prague, 9 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Central and East European countries have taken very different approaches to coming to terms with their Communist past.

Romania shot its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, but allowed members of their dreaded secret police, the Securitate, to blend into post-Communist society.

In East Germany, files of the feared Stasi secret police were opened to their victims, often tearing apart friendships and even marriages as citizens learned that their closest friends -- and in some cases spouses -- had informed on them.

In Poland and Hungary, the Communists gave up power peacefully, so that reformed Communists blended seamlessly into the new democratic regimes.

Only the Czech Republic has taken a methodical approach to documenting the crimes of Communism and seeking retribution for past wrongs. The first government body for this purpose was sent up in 1990, soon after the Velvet Revolution, and it has developed into today's institution, The Office for Documentation and Prosecution of the Crimes of Communism (UDV).

Its spokesman, Tomas Hornof, says the office, which has police investigation authority, "seeks to map and publicize the whole epoch of Communism." It operates on the principle that there is no collective guilt attached to all former Communists, but that "specific people committed specific crimes."

Hornof acknowledges that it is not possible to make amends for all the crimes that were committed, or to prosecute and judge all the criminals, in part because many of them are dead.

"But the philosophy says it's not possible to make amends in all the cases. But it's important to redress at least what we can. And let it be known that today's political regime seeks to punish the crimes which were committed in the past and signal to the world that we don't want to have anything in common with the communist regime."

Vaclav Benda, a former dissident who headed the UDV until recently, says it is not only a question of redressing past grievances, but of setting moral standards for today and tomorrow.

He says that all power, not only Communist power, is very tempting. And, he says "it must be clear once and for all that a crime backed by power never stops being a crime and it is punishable" -- even after 50 years.

The theory is laudable, but the results so far have been disappointing. Only one man, 85-year-old Jaroslav Daniel, a particularly brutal former StB (secret police) agent, has been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

The office is investigating up to 200 people for possible criminal charges, but cases are slow in coming to court. Marian Gula, current head of the UDV, admits that there is an element of chance involved in which people are prosecuted.

"That is to say that someone appears who happens to remember the name of that person, is capable of identifying him, is capable of giving evidence that is relevant to a criminal legal case. In that sense it is by chance. But not in the sense that criminal judgment is accidental."

Investigators admit they are hampered by a lack of evidence, and the fact that memories are fading among the people who lived through the most brutal era of Communism in Czechoslovakia, the 1950s.

The most traumatic episode in Czechoslovakia's recent history -- the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 that crushed the Prague Spring -- is being thoroughly investigated by the office. But efforts to bring to trial those responsible for what many consider the gravest crime of treason have foundered in court and the case is back in the hands of prosecutors.

Separately from the investigations and prosecutions of the UDV, the Czech government has also opened to the public the files compiled by the StB.

It is a process that has proved traumatic in other countries, and one that is still being debated in, for example, Romania and Poland. Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, a former Communist who was prime minister in post-Communist Poland, says citizens should have the legal right to see their files, but may pay a personal price.

"From the legal point of view, yes. From the human point of view, I am afraid that after looking into their files, they will be disappointed in many cases, even by the fact that they will find the names of their colleagues or friends who were not loyal. And probably for many of them it will be a kind of shock, doing nothing good to their life."

And a problem in all former Communist countries is that the files were likely tampered with in the dying days of the old regime by the very people who compiled them. Cimoszewicz says most of the files he saw as prime minsiter were not trustworthy.

"As a prime minister, in many cases I had to ask the special services for their opinion about somebody who was a candidate for a high position. And I found that in most cases, in most situations, the secret police files were constructed or filled in a way not giving you any basis to (view them) as credible. There were so many reasons to falsify that in the moment when it was prepared or after that, in '89, in '90. Probably. There is no evidence of that, but almost everybody here in Poland, including myself, believes that it happened. Those files were selected, some files were destroyed and so on."