25th anniversary of Charter 77 human rights declaration

Charter 77 declaration

Twenty five years ago, in January 1977, the Charter 77 human rights manifesto was declared by opposition activists in Prague. The document was prepared by a group of Czech dissidents, among them the current Czech president Vaclav Havel, the chairman of the Senate Petr Pithart and many people who have been involved in Czech politics since 1989. Pavla Horakova has the story.

The declaration criticised the communist regime for violating the Czechoslovak constitution by not observing the Helsinki human rights agreements, which Czechoslovakia signed in 1975. By the 1st of January 1977 when the document was officially declared, 242 people had signed it. They were an informal community of intellectuals, proscribed writers, reformed communists expelled from the party after 1968 and ordinary blue-collar workers. The group had no set hierarchies; the only official institution was that of a spokesperson. At any one time the Charter 77 had three spokespersons, in case one or two were detained by the police or imprisoned. The documents were distributed via the samizdat network, and read on Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and the BBC. Twenty five years ago, on January 7th 1977 the European dailies The Times, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published the first document of the Charter 77.

The Czechoslovak communist broad-sheet Rude pravo denounced the text on January 6th without actually publishing the document. Rude pravo never published the declaration and the average Czechoslovak citizen would never have had a chance to read it. Until the very fall of the regime in 1989 Rude pravo referred to the document as "the so called charter". The daily labelled the signatories "a bunch of self-appointed failures, mercenaries of imperialism, Zionism and militarism who intend to destroy the camp of peace and socialism".

Over 1,800 people signed the Charter 77 before the fall of communism in 1989. The communist regime never forgave the signatories and many of them had to suffer such consequences as frequent police interrogation and even violence, unemployment or imprisonment. In several cases the signatories had to leave Czechoslovakia as victims of the secret police "Asanace" or "Clearance" operation. Between 1977 and 1985 the secret police forced the signatories to apply for emigration using various threats, physical violence and other bullying methods.

The communist authorities went so far as to create an "Anti-charter" which was declared by the official artists´ union and read out in the National Theatre in front of an audience of leading Czechoslovak artists. More than 7000 artists and ensembles signed this document.

The Charter 77 movement officially ceased to exist in the autumn of 1992.