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Principles Are A Powerful Weapon

Miroslav Kusy (courtesy
Miroslav Kusy (courtesy
For a few years, I believed my experiences of anticommunist dissent were a matter of the past, ready to be forgotten. But in the early 1990s, these experiences came back to my mind when the nascent democracy of Slovakia was threatened by the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Meciar, it will be recalled, was widely criticized at home and abroad for his autocratic style, his lack of respect for democracy, and tolerance of corruption.

At that time, I wrote an essay called "Advice From a Dissident" as a handbook for those who found themselves in conflict with Meciar's arrogant rule. Over the years, those tips came in handy in my meetings with Cuban dissidents and others who traveled to Slovakia to learn from our transition experiences. No matter how much time passes, it seems there will always be a need for practical tips on how to deal with the police.

First, every mistake by the police -- the heavy-handed use of violence, threats, blackmail, etc. -- must be made public. By doing so, you show the authorities that you respect yourself as a sovereign citizen and you bring upon yourself the protection afforded by public opinion.

In addition, cumulatively such reports enable society to control the police and, ultimately, force the police to control themselves. Abuses of power must never be kept in the dark; they are a violation of human rights. By tolerating such behavior, people signal that they accept the abuse of power and lawlessness as general norms.

Every Means At Our Disposal

To publicize such abuses, we must use every means at our disposal -- opposition media, NGOs, strike committees, self-publishing, international institutions, foreign media, etc.

Police abuses often come when a person is summoned, interrogated, and then detained. In a civilized society, this procedure is a formal act and, therefore, a citizen should insist it proceed like one. You must not allow yourself to be bullied into acting as if you came voluntarily or as if the whole thing is just "a friendly chat." You must reject every attempt to make your appearance an "informal procedure," just as you must reject verbal or physical abuse. Insist that all questions proceed from a presumption of innocence; do not answer questions that are not related to the matter at hand.

Insist that everything be formally documented and put into the official record. Every question, every answer must be written down. Once everything is compiled into an official report, ask to see it and study it

If you are detained during a demonstration, you can often refuse to be treated like a "witness." In most cases, a person cannot be a witness to an event they participated in. In such cases, you can insist on being interrogated as a suspect and, consequently, you can insist on having a lawyer present.

If you do not agree with the official protocol of your interrogation, do not sign it. You cannot be forced to sign the protocol and you can insist on having your objections to the protocol introduced into the record. In such cases, the police will often drag out the proceedings or threaten to detain you until you sign. In my experience, this is just a power game and the police usually let you go after an hour or two even without your signature. After all, the exact beginning and ending times of the interrogation must be in the official record as well -- insist that these details be included, as they may come in handy later.

Being an inexperienced dissident in my youth, it took me a long time to learn all these principles. But I got there eventually and I learned that when waging a battle of dissent, sticking to principles can be a powerful weapon. So, I make this information public in hopes that it will help others who are fighting against injustice and abuse of power.

Hopefully, they won't have to learn from their own mistakes.

Miroslav Kusy is a Slovak political scientist and politician. In 1969 he resigned as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Slovakia. He was an original signatory of Charter 77 and a founder of the Slovak Helsinki Committee. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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