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Czech Republic: Havel Pardons Priest Who Was Under Fire For Criticizing Communists

Czech President Vaclav Havel today pardoned a Czech priest who had been facing up to two years in jail for urging his parishioners not to vote Communist in a recent election. Police had accused the priest of defaming a group of people for their beliefs. As RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, the investigation had been criticized as absurd and an attack on free expression.

Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel today pardoned Father Vojtech Protivinsky, who had been facing up to two years in jail for posting leaflets urging his parishioners not to vote Communist.

The case goes back to November 2000, when a Communist and a right-of-center candidate went head-to-head in a runoff election to the Czech Senate, the upper house of parliament.

Protivinsky -- of Saint John the Baptist's Church in Rakvice -- posted some 2,000 leaflets door-to-door and pasted up a further 500 in the five parishes he administers in the wine-making region close to the Austrian border.

"Don't believe the Communists when they tell us they want freedom. It was they who sent millions of people to concentration camps and to death just for their opinions, which were different from those of the party's central committee!" he wrote. He also said, "That's why I cannot remain silent. As a priest I must not just warn about evil, but stand up to evil. So I urge you: Stop the rise of communism."

In the end, the right-of-center candidate, running for the Freedom Union party, won. The Communists were angry.

At first, they filed a lawsuit accusing Protivinsky of interfering in the election process. Then they changed the accusation, saying Protivinsky was guilty of defaming them for their political convictions.

The Czech defamation law they invoked -- targeting bias against a person's nationality, race, or beliefs -- is commonly used in cases against skinheads or others accused of hurling racial abuse at Roma or performing Nazi salutes in public.

The police told Protivinsky that he had "publicly defamed a group of people for their political convictions. The [Fundamental] Charter of Rights and Freedoms says people are free and equal regardless of their political beliefs. [Hatred] toward a group of people based on their political beliefs clearly emanates from your leaflets."

The police had pointed out that the Communist Party is recognized by the state and has members in parliament. The charter says political parties must be free to compete in a democratic society.

Protivinsky told RFE/RL why he decided to speak up about the elections: "Because I consider Communists to be a real danger for freedom, democracy, for human rights and for the church too, obviously. What happened a year ago in Breclav was that two candidates were running against each other in the runoff senate election, a Communist and non-Communist. And when I saw what the Communists' voting discipline was like, that they always come out to vote, I was worried that a number of people who are against them would stay at home and just see what happens and the Communists would be helped on with just their own votes. That's why I wanted to encourage people to vote and show that they didn't want the Communists."

Protivinsky maintains he acted out of respect for the constitution, for the pluralistic political system and basic human rights: "These are all values that communists have threatened or directly destroyed not only in our country but all over the world, wherever they got the chance. So I'm convinced that what I did, I did in line with the constitution."

Politicians from across the spectrum say the case was absurd.

One commentator, writing in the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes," played on the Biblical commandment with the headline "Thou shalt not take a Communist's name in vain."

Hana Marvanova leads the Freedom Union party. She said, "It's completely unbelievable, scandalous. And it's ridiculous that the accusations came practically on the 12th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. This priest is being prosecuted for warning against the election of the Communists and their new return to power and didn't say anything other than what's in the law that parliament deputies approved in 1993 outlawing the communist regime."

Marvanova says the case is part of a worrying trend in the Czech Republic: "I think that it's a slowly creeping trend in the Czech Republic. There are a whole number of these cases where people are being prosecuted for expressing their opinions, especially recently. It's not just this case -- there are other, less visible cases -- where lawsuits are started against journalists for defamation. Recently it was 'Mlada fronta Dnes' journalists who publicized details on what was going on in the government office. [I] think it's a dangerous trend and that we're seeing specific situations where freedom of expression is being curtailed and the statements or opinions are being criminalized."

Protivinsky's parish comes under the bishopric of the Czech Republic's second city, Brno. Spokeswoman Martina Jandlova says Bishop Vojtech Cikrie stood by Protivinsky, as it's part of a priest's calling to draw attention to social ills. The Czech Confederation of Political Prisoners also voiced support for Protivinsky.

Protivinsky says he doesn't regret last year's political activities. He said today that he appreciates Havel's pardon but regrets that the case will not be heard in court.