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Czech Republic: Strougal Case Refocuses Attention On Communist Crimes

Czech prosecutors this week charged former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal with abuse of power in connection with his time as a senior Communist Party functionary. A judge must now decide whether the case will be tried in court. If so, it will be a victory for the Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism (UDV), which has had little success so far in pinning responsibility for alleged crimes on the country's former leaders.

Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The charges against Lubomir Strougal date back to 1965 when he was Czechoslovak interior minister, before he began his 18 years as prime minister. Prosecutors allege that at the time, Strougal failed to hand over a file to the general prosecutor's office with information on certain ministry employees. That file allegedly contained references to the murder of three political activists by former members of the StB secret police.

The case has generated media interest because it seems likely that a judge will order a trial. As Czech journalist, Jan Kubita, who works for the daily Lidove Noviny, tells RFE/RL that only one such high-ranking former Communist official has been jailed since 1989 for crimes committed during office.

"In this case, it does look as if the judge will order a trial -- that this case will genuinely get heard in court. This would be a true breakthrough, because with the exception of the case of [former Prague Communist Party chief] Miroslav Stepan, at the start of the 1990s -- and that was the first time such a high functionary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party faced trial -- since that time, nothing like this has been repeated."

It will be several weeks before the judge delivers a final decision. But the controversy around whether the 76-year-old Strougal will face justice has refocused attention on Czech courts and the work of The Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism (UDV), which prepared the case.

Over the past six years, out of 160 cases prepared by the office, only nine have been prosecuted. Of those, only four individuals received prison terms. Most files are routinely returned to the UDV for reworking by judges who cite incomplete evidence. Aside from Miroslav Stepan, who served less than two years in jail for his part in the initial suppression of student demonstrators during the November 1989 revolution, no top leaders have been brought to task for their roles in running the Communist apparatus.

Staff at the UDV say that judges -- some of whom served under the old regime -- are not interested in pursuing the issue of guilt for Communist-era crimes. But Kubita says there is some truth to charges that the cases presented by the UDV are often ill-prepared. Part of the problem lies in the funding and resulting low staffing levels of the office -- which falls under the Interior Ministry. Kubita compares the UDV to Germany's office, set up to review former secret police files:

"Compare the Gauck office in Germany, where some 3,000 people work. The Czech UDV had in the year 1997, 97 staffers, including documents experts and investigators. So you can see that the staffing numbers are very weak. As for the quality of the investigators, I wouldn't presume to pass final judgment, but the best investigators work on current crimes and don't have much motivation to work in this office. I think that the office's weak staffing contributes to the perception that the institute's work is of low quality."

Since 1997 and a change in government, the office's personnel has been reshuffled, leading to a further exodus.

"Since that time, a lot of document specialists and investigators have left the institute. Audits are now taking place and this pressure has led to the departure of the good investigators."

The other -- more fundamental -- problem is the issue of legal continuity. Because of the Czech Republic's acceptance of this principle, former Communist functionaries cannot be prosecuted for observing laws valid under the former regime -- even if those laws in many cases directly infringed on citizens' human rights. Violations are difficult to prove.

Germany, by contrast, chose another road and does not recognize the legitimacy of former East German laws. But even with an easier legal framework and a well-staffed office, statistics show that Berlin has been equally unsuccessful in bringing former Communist officials to justice.

There, the statistics are even more telling. Out of 12,000 cases prepared by the Gauck office, only 28 have been prosecuted so far. Many of those cases concern former border guards who shot citizens attempting to flee to the West.

Veteran commentator Jiri Jes, who was politically active as a student before the Czechoslovak Communist takeover in 1948 and subsequently spent several years in Communist prisons before being sent into internal exile, says the Czechs have been no worse in dealing with their Communist past than their neighbors.

"The problem of dealing with our Communist past should not be seen as just a Czech issue or an issue of the former Czechoslovakia. It's also important to look around to other post-Communist states and we can see that a similar -- if not worse -- situation exists everywhere."

Jes compares the process of de-Communization to de-Nazification:

"Even in Germany after the war, in 1945, it was not possible to punish all Nazi functionaries. If it hadn't been for the Allied forces, the Germans themselves would have never managed anything. Here we didn't have the end of a 'hot' war, but the end of the Cold War, which lasted much longer and because of that, there were such large numbers of people compromised by the regime in all these post-Communist states, that it was a practical impossibility to deal with all of them through the courts."

Jes notes that Strougal was considered among the less ideological members of the Czechoslovak Communist leadership. Despite being identified with the period of so-called "normalization," Strougal initially opposed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the late 1980s, he tried to position himself as a centrist, taking a cue from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

"I think the greatest perpetrators are long dead and when people like (former Central Committee member and later dissident) Zdenek Mlynar or today Lubomir Strougal are being pursued, they belonged to those who were relatively better among the evil ones. I think it's unfair to pursue them just because they have remained alive -- and actually, of course, Mlynar is dead anyway."

Czech law does not allow for posthumous trials and for Jes, the courts at this point may be the wrong venue for justice. He would like to see the past documented by historians and those responsible for the suffering caused by the communist regime to be named for future generations to know.

"Yes, I am in favor of a trial -- not a trial in a normal criminal court -- but a trial by history."

Ultimately, he is likely to get his wish.