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Czech Republic: Bill Would Open Communist Secret Police Files To General Public

  • Jolyon Naegele

The lower house of the Czech parliament has passed a bill that -- if approved by the upper house and signed by the president -- will vastly expand the number of communist-era secret police files open to the public. But politicians and former dissidents remain divided over the wisdom of opening what they fear could be a Pandora's box.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amid much media fanfare, the lower house of the Czech parliament in early February passed a bill on access to the files of the former communist secret police, or StB.

For the past five years, Czechs have been allowed to read files the StB kept on them but not on others. The Czech CTK news agency says the new bill would enable Czech citizens over the age of 18 to view formerly secret documents on alleged StB collaborators and the personnel files of StB employees. StB documents that could compromise the Czech Republic's security interests or threaten human lives will not be opened.

The Social Democratic government and the country's intelligence services oppose the new bill. The government says it is at odds with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

It must still be passed anew by the Senate before it can be signed into law by President Vaclav Havel. Presidential spokesman Ladislav Spacek says the president will take a stand on the law if the Senate approves it.

It is still far from clear what is actually in the bill. The only public version is one passed by the Senate in August, but the bill passed this month is an amended version. The man in charge of the former secret police files, Jan Frolik, alleges that lawmakers did not know what was in the bill when they passed it. Frolik told RFE/RL that even he has not seen the final version.

Frolik isn't the only one in the dark. The deputy director of the Interior Ministry's Institute for Documenting and Investigating the Crimes of Communism (UDV), Pavel Bret, said his institute has not received a copy of the amended bill for evaluation, in contrast to the original law of 1996 on public access to StB files.

At that time, the Interior Ministry asked the UDV for its opinion and incorporated some of its recommendations. But the current Czech government barely tolerates the UDV and has clipped its wings by cutting its budget and limiting contacts.

As a result, Bret said, all he knows about the new bill is what the public knows. Bret said the victims of StB repression should have the last word about access to the files.

"I think the circle of people who above all should have a say in this are those who were tangibly wronged by the former regime between 1948 and 1989," Bret said. "I think this view is determinative, because it concerns making available materials which were gathered without their knowledge or even in contravention of all valid laws and used against them."

StB archives Director Frolik says nearly 3,000 citizens in the past five years have been allowed to read their files. That is less than 10 percent of those who have asked, largely because the files they want no longer exist or never existed in the first place or because the applicants were not qualified.

Some politicians -- notably speaker of parliament and former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus -- have expressed no interest in the files. Former dissidents of the Charter 77 human rights initiative are also divided over the wisdom of opening the files further.

Political commentator and former dissident Petruska Sustrova, who served as a deputy interior minister in the first months after the collapse of communist rule, favors opening the files.

"You know, I have great respect for every step, and this is not a little step. For instance, we are moving into the phase in which Germany has been since the early 1990s -- that, for example, one can get information on public figures and that there won't be endless trials, because anyone would think twice before making public information that someone collaborated with the secret police if it weren't true," Sustrova said. "If it is true, it can verified. I think this is quite important, because viewing the past is important. That goes without saying."

Social Democratic Deputy Zdenek Jicinsky opposes the bill. Jicinsky authored all of Czechoslovakia's and the Czech Republic's constitutions since 1960. But after the Soviet invasion of 1968, communist hard-liners perceived him as a liberal and the secret police labeled him "hostile."

"There are ideological-political and expert-legal sides to this," Jicinsky said. "I just don't think that in this way one could understand the past better. One can't learn all that much about the past from individual files, and it is not a way to balance out the past. When speaking to parliament, I quoted [Polish newspaper publisher and ex-dissident Adam] Michnik, who has derided the quality of the files. He said, 'What were these files drawn up for -- not to determine the truth but to create a certain picture to enable various people in various ways to extort.' That's one thing. And the other is this law doesn't have the required legal quality."

Jicinsky said that, according to the Czech constitution and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, every Czech has the right to the protection of their persons and their privacy. Since the StB files contain lies about his private life, Jicinsky said he does not want anyone to read them.

"I have the right [to be assured] that this data is somehow protected," Jicinsky said. "But the law as it is conceived does not adequately ensure this protection. So I think it is a bad law."

Jicinsky said he has nothing against historians being allowed to study the files. But he said he doesn't think tabloid journalists should have access.

"Twelve years [after the collapse of communist rule], these really aren't matters that concern society," Jicinsky said. "To the extent that I am in contact with normal people as a lawmaker in my constituency, people are concerned with current problems and how things will be in future. I don't think that these things of the past interest people all that much."

Former dissident and ex-Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier predicted the new legislation will not have the desired effect: "I'm only afraid that this form of making [the files] public will most likely result in scandalizing rather than any coming to terms with the past or determining the truth. While truthful matters are also recorded there, the files are full of lies, disgusting information from neighbors acting as confidantes and from other informers who, when they didn't know what to write, made up things. I think they should be accessible to experts who can really evaluate them. Otherwise, it will be the final victory of the defeated state security which once again is able to disseminate disinformation about various people in this society. I can imagine that the first ones to go into this will be the scandal-sheet tabloids, rather than citizens who'd like to know the truth."

Dienstbier said he has yet to look at his own files, despite ample opportunities.

"Personally, not even at the beginning of the 1990s when I had the opportunity to take a look, not even then did it occur to me to take a peek at my files, because what can I find there?" Dienstbier said. "At best, what I already know, plus perhaps that one or two people about whom I had no suspicions informed on me. So maybe I'll take a look at my files if I live to the day when I'll have the time to write my memoirs, because, for instance, I'll find out what I was doing on May 15, 1976, at three in the afternoon. But maybe I won't even find that out."

Just as in the law passed in 1996, the current bill excludes foreigners from having access to the secret police files. However, the new version does allow naturalized Czech citizens to view the files. In contrast, Germany permits foreigners access to their files kept by the former East German Stasi.

Former Czech Deputy Interior Minister Sustrova is one of the most outspoken advocates of granting access to foreigners.

"The fact that people who were under surveillance by state security and who are citizens of other states are denied access, I consider to be an expression of stupid Czech xenophobia. It only reaffirms a remark by [Vojtech] Filip, a Communist MP, who said [last week] that this would play into the hands of foreign intelligence agencies," Sustrova said. "Well, foreign intelligence agencies have their own sources and certainly won't need publicly to go into declassified archives of State Security. That's nonsense, and in my view really testifies to mistrust and unwillingness because it has nothing to do with the security of the state."