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Czech Republic: Havel Saddened, Frustrated By Solih Detention

  • Jolyon Naegele

Uzbekistan's exiled poet, human rights activist, and political opposition leader, Mohammad Solih, is spending his ninth day in a Prague prison today as he waits for a Czech court to decide whether to comply with an Interpol arrest warrant and extradite him to Uzbekistan. Human rights organizations in the West say Solih faces years of imprisonment or even death if he returns to Uzbekistan under the current regime of President Islam Karimov. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele spoke with the Czech Republic's dissident playwright turned president, Vaclav Havel, about the case and why Havel has been unable to intervene.

Lany, Czech Republic; 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Exiled Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Solih wrote from a Prague jail on 3 December that he would not have expected to be jailed in a country headed by Vaclav Havel.

Havel was imprisoned for some five years in the 1970s and '80s by the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia for his human rights activities.

Nevertheless, Solih wrote in an open letter from prison that he is convinced the Czech Republic is a state of law.

Solih, who leads the main Uzbek opposition party, Erk, lives in exile in Norway, where he has been granted asylum. An Uzbek court convicted him in absentia to 15 1/2 years in prison for a series of explosions in Tashkent two years ago for which the authorities blamed a wide variety of opposition groups. Uzbekistan then issued, through Interpol, a worldwide arrest warrant for Solih.

The Uzbek activist received asylum in Norway three years ago and has a refugee travel document valid for all countries of the world except Uzbekistan.

Czech police detained Solih on 29 November on his arrival in Prague, where he had flown to be interviewed by the Uzbek Service of RFE/RL. He remains in jail pending a decision by a Czech court on whether to extradite him to Uzbekistan or return him to Norway.

Havel says he is watching the case closely, but in contrast to his numerous and often controversial amnesties, the Czech president has not intervened directly in the Solih case.

"I am certain that he will not be extradited to the totalitarian leaders but will be returned to Norway. In my opinion, this should never have happened, and if it did, he should be returned [to Norway] very soon," Havel told RFE/RL. "It's been needlessly long, but in the end it will turn out well. Let's hope it's just bureaucratic red tape, some sort of cautiousness and once again fear perhaps of the 'Muslim element.' God knows what that is. But the people who decide, like the minister of justice, have let it be known that he will be returned to Norway. I find it very sad. It harms our republic."

As Havel put it, "Surely a terrorist, which is what he is accused of being, would not receive asylum in Norway."

Havel says he has done all he can for Solih, that he is powerless to intervene in a case involving an international arrest warrant. But he says he will lobby on Solih's behalf: "First of all, we had to get hold of all the facts. One can't just say Interpol is foolish. Secondly, one has to check things out. This has been done, and now I know he is a campaigner for human rights and that he is an innocent person. So now I can start expressing myself [about Solih]. I'll tell it to the justice minister, the interior minister, to all news media that ask me. I can't do any more than that. I don't have the keys to his cell, and in this case, I can't grant a pardon."

Havel is less sure than Solih that the Czech Republic -- 12 years after the collapse of communist rule -- is a state where the rule of law applies: "Institutionally, formally, technically speaking, we are a democratic state of law. But little of it is applied in real life the way many people would like it to be. That means legal recourse and thousands of other things, such as the way politicians behave toward each other."

Havel was asked about differences in perception about the current war on terrorism in Afghanistan compared with NATO's bombing campaign of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia in 1999.

He said: "There is a significant difference between the action against Milosevic [in 1999] and this one [in Afghanistan]. It is a very peculiar thing, which I realized that to a considerable extent involves our region. I've noticed that some people -- politicians or publicly active people -- somehow differentiate between two evils, two terrorisms: one that is evil and one that is somewhat worse. Always, without a doubt, the Slavic one was less evil and the Muslim one was worse. Look at how much clearer the support has been from our political elite in this war in comparison to that war [in 1999]."

Havel says that it is as if Czechs still share the habits and stereotypes imposed in the communist era -- as if, he says, "they've adopted a certain collectivism, the need to be a member of some sort of consolidated society."

In his words, "Now, since they don't have the ideological banner, they still lean toward the ethnic banner [believing], of course, that Slavs are a lot closer to us than Muslims."

"I often get a cold shudder down my spine when I hear certain politicians or reporters mouthing totally anti-Muslim invectives and arguments."

Nevertheless, Havel says he is optimistic the situation in Afghanistan will turn out well. He says the optimism expressed by the leaders of the anti-Taliban forces that the Taliban would collapse like a house of cards reminded him of the dissident era in the 1970s and '80s in Czechoslovakia, when foreign correspondents were skeptical of any real change for the better in a country where -- as he quotes them -- "there were a few crazy intellectuals behind whom the working class was not standing."

"But I told the [foreign correspondents], 'Watch it. You don't understand the interrelationships in a totalitarian regime in which any small snowball can set off an avalanche, and you won't know where it will happen and you may be quite surprised.' I was reminded of this [by the situation in Afghanistan], even though it is in another world, another environment. They are not fighting with manifestos or imprisonment but with real armaments."

Havel granted the interview late yesterday to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its Czech affiliate, Radio Svobodna Evropa, at the presidential country residence at Lany just west of Prague, where he is recuperating from a respiratory ailment.

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