Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal today pleaded not guilty in a Prague court to charges of abuse of power in covering up crimes committed by the secret police.
Two previous attempts to convict Strougal have failed. Last May, the Czech Supreme Court ended the prosecution of Strougal for his alleged role in supplying weapons to the Communist Party's armed vanguard, the People's Militia (LM). And an investigation begun three years ago into Strougal's alleged failure to truthfully inform the public about the impact of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster has failed to turn up evidence.
This time, Strougal has been accused of abuse of power while serving as interior minister in 1964-65. He has been charged with blocking an investigation into members of the StB secret police and ordering that information about the investigation not be handed over to the prosecutor-general, despite repeated requests.
If convicted on the charge of abuse of public office, Strougal faces a prison sentence of between three and 10 years.
Strougal stands accused of covering up a case involving secret police officers alleged to have carried out three murders after the 1948 communist coup. The officers allegedly tortured the victims during interrogation, then drove them outside of Prague and killed them on the pretext that they were "trying to escape."
Strougal, who is 77, told the court today that as interior minister he always acted according to the law and was "legally correct." He now says he did not approve the investigative report 36 years ago because it was incomplete and misleading, as it referred only to the police officers involved in the case and did not deal with the responsibility of higher-level Interior Ministry officials.
Strougal says he ordered the investigation to be discontinued because he says he had the impression the investigators from the Interior Ministry's inspectorate "would not have been able to investigate [the case] to the end." He says the investigators were "easy to influence" because they were friendly with Interior Ministry employees. In his words, "police should not investigate police." As a result, he says, he called on the prosecutor-general's office to take over the case, conduct the investigation on its own, and take control of the Interior Ministry's inspectorate.
However, available evidence shows only that Strougal ordered his ministry to drop the case and not hand it over to the prosecutor-general. Strougal insists he never signed or approved such a memo.
Strougal held a series of top government and Communist Party posts starting in 1959, when he first joined the cabinet as Czechoslovak minister of agriculture. He was interior minister from 1961-65, Communist Party secretary from 1965-70, deputy prime minister in 1968, and prime minister from 1970 until his resignation in 1988, by which time he was Europe's longest-serving government chief.
He left office abruptly in a power struggle within the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership, allegedly after failing to win support from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his technocratic policies.
Today's trial is one of three current cases against former leading communists. Earlier in December, court proceedings began against another former communist Czechoslovak interior minister and three secret police officers for their roles in the 1970s and 1980s in forcing numerous dissidents to choose between prison terms or emigrating to the West. That trial will resume early in 2002.
And in January, the long-delayed torture trial is due to begin of former StB investigator Alois Grebenicek, the father of the present chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. He has repeatedly failed to show up for trial, citing health reasons.
Persecuted dissident playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel has expressed satisfaction that these cases are finally coming to trial, saying "it is of great significance."
Czech investigators are working on their third attempt to bring former Politburo members Milos Jakes and Jozef Lenart to justice. The two former officials are suspected of treason for their roles in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Nevertheless, relatively few former communist officials have been convicted and sent to prison.
Those who have include the former head of the Communist Party's Prague municipal committee, Miroslav Stepan, who was sentenced to four years in jail in 1990 for his role in crushing anti-communist demonstrations in the late 1980s. Stepan was released early from prison on good behavior.
A court this year sentenced a former prosecutor, Karel Vas, to seven years in prison for his role in the show trial in the late 1940s of anti-communist General Heliodor Pika. Vas has not yet begun to serve his sentence, pending an appeal.
A Czechoslovak military court in Prague in 1992 convicted the former head of the Czechoslovak StB, Alojz Lorenc, the former head of counterintelligence Karel Vykypel, and former Czech Interior Minister Frantisek Kincl of abuse of power for their roles in jailing dissidents without legal grounds in the late 1980s.
Vykypel and Kincl served out their sentences, but Lorenc -- who had been sentenced to four years in prison -- fled to Slovakia where, after the breakup of the federal state nine years ago, he went unprosecuted for years.
Finally, on 5 December, a military court in Bratislava also convicted Lorenc of abuse of power for jailing dissidents without legal grounds during the 1980s. The court gave him a suspended sentence of 15 months in prison.