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Czech Republic: Former Communist Officials Acquitted In Treason Trial

Two former Czechoslovak Communist leaders walked free from court yesterday, after being cleared of treason charges in connection with the Warsaw Pact invasion of 21 August 1968. It's the latest setback for those seeking to bring to justice the country's former top Communist officials.

Prague, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It took seven years to bring Czechoslovak Communist leaders Milous Jakes and Jozef Lenart to trial. It took a Prague court just one week to find them not guilty of treason-related charges.

Judge Hana Hrncirova told the packed municipal courtroom yesterday that the accused were "acquitted under Paragraph 226 B of the Criminal Code."

The two are the highest-ranking communist-era officials to stand trial since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Eighty-year-old Jakes was Czechoslovakia's last Communist leader before the party was swept from power. Jozef Lenart, now 79, was Czechoslovak prime minister in the 1960s.

Prosecutors accused the two of plotting to set up a "workers' and farmers' government" that would legitimize the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968.

The key event was a meeting they attended at the Soviet Embassy in Prague one day after Warsaw Pact forces rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring reform movement.

That government was never installed, but the reformers led by Alexander Dubcek were sidelined and then purged to make way for hard-liners such as Jakes and Gustav Husak, who eventually became president.

But the court said there was no proof that Jakes and Lenart met with the intention of forming and joining an illegal government. And Hrncirova said they had to be judged according to laws in place at the time. "The court came to the conclusion that the accused could not have committed the crime of subverting the republic because this would have entailed an attempt to subvert the socialist system," Hrncirovas said.

The court case attracted much media attention, not least for the spectacle provided by the two elderly, still apparently unapologetic defendants, who managed to smile and occasionally joke throughout.

During one break in the court proceedings, Jakes and Lenart popped across the road for a snack -- to that bastion of capitalism, McDonald's. At another point, Lenart made what appeared to be an attempt to quote from the Bible, saying, "Judge them not according to words, but to their deeds." The prosecution on one occasion also received the tart reply, "We weren't such idiots."

After his acquittal, Lenart was more reserved in his comments. "I accept the verdict, but I'm not going to comment on what will happen next," Lenart said.

Jakes was similarly brief. "I think the court decided according to the law," Jakes said.

The verdict is another disappointment for the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, which has had little luck so far in bringing former Communist officials to justice.

Only one official has so far been convicted for crimes committed while in office: Prague party boss Miroslav Stepan, who was sentenced to several years in jail in the early 1990s.

Lubomir Strougal, another former prime minister, was acquitted earlier this year of covering up an investigation into the 1948 torture and murder of three dissidents.

Karel Hoffman, the official who silenced state broadcasting on 21 August until hard-liners put pro-invasion journalists in place, may still face trial on treason charges. And another hard-liner, Vasil Bilak, still faces a similar treason trial in Slovakia.

Other cases are still going through the courts, though it's proving a protracted process.

Former Interior Minister Jaromir Obzina is being prosecuted for directing a campaign of intimidation to force dissidents to flee Czechoslovakia. But the trial has been adjourned due to his ill health. Former secret-police officer Alois Grebenicek, the father of the current Communist Party leader, faces trial on charges of torturing political prisoners in the 1950s, but hearings have been repeatedly postponed, also because of ill health.

Petruska Sustrova is a columnist and former dissident. She said any attempt to prosecute former Communist officials is bound to run into trouble. "It's a real legal maze and it's clear that you can only prosecute someone for something that was criminal at the time it was committed. If I do something that's not against the law [now] but is in 20 years' time, I can hardly be prosecuted for it. So if we were to look for the real guilty parties for communism in Czechoslovakia, we'd have to go much further," Sustrova said.

She said the criminal-justice system is not the place to determine the guilt of people such as Jakes and Lenart. "It's just not possible to confuse political guilt with criminal guilt. What I would like to see, something that probably wouldn't satisfy many people but that would bring some clarity to the whole issue, is some kind of public tribunal. Everyone says to leave it to the historians and then we see these chaotic attempts to prosecute some top officials from the past. But it's very hard to see what they can be accused of and in most cases, it turns out that these people are politically guilty, not criminally guilty, or they couldn't be criminally guilty because they didn't do anything that was against the law at that time," Sustrova said.

The story is not yet over for Jakes and Lenart. The state attorney has appealed and the case will be sent to the high court in Prague.

(RFE/RL's Don Hill contributed to this report.)