Asanace - the Communists' infamous clearance operation - left indelible stain on dissidents' lives

Almost thirty years have passed since communist Czechoslovakia's secret police first masterminded their infamous Asanace campaign - a clearance operation that used intimidation, mental and physical abuse, even torture - to get Czechoslovak dissidents to flee the country. In 2002, three officials received suspended sentences for their involvement in the campaign, while two received three-year sentences. The verdicts were later overturned on a technicality, only to be reinstated once again by a Prague court this week. With the jail sentences one episode may be over, but, as Jan Velinger now reports, the case is hardly at an end.

Jiri Simak and Zbynek Dudek, two former members of communist Czechoslovakia's StB, the secret police, were sentenced on Monday to three years in prison for their roles in the Asanace campaign. Is it enough? The state attorney doesn't think so: immediately upon hearing the verdict the prosecution put forward an appeal, in the hope of seeking a stiffer sentence for the former agents' alleged crimes.

In 1981, Mr Simak and Mr Dudek allegedly attacked one dissident during an interrogation at the former secret police headquarters in Prague, choking the man with a wet towel until he lost consciousness. In another incident later that year, both agents were also involved in breaking into an apartment belonging to dissident Zina Freundova, who they threatened and beat up. She consequently fled the country in fear of further persecution and even for her life.

Says Pavel Zacek, a specialist from Prague's Institute for Contemporary History, Freundova's case was not isolated by any means.

"Under the direction of the Central Committee of the Communist Party the heads of the secret police made a list of people opposing the regime, especially people who signed Charter 77, almost 80 people who they wanted to force out of the country. All steps of the operation were made by regional units of the Czechoslovak secret police state security."

The Asanace campaign primarily targeted critics of the regime, especially those who signed the Charta 77 human rights charter. Many prominent Czechs did leave Czechoslovakia - terrorised until they cut their losses and left their lives here behind.

Famous cases were those of writer Pavel Kohout, actor Pavel Landovsky, and writer - now rabbi - Karol Siddon. But other prominent dissidents who were forced to leave included the family of Marek Tomin, a Greenpeace coordinator today who was just a child when he witnessed the persecution of his parents.

His mother, Zdena Tominova, was the spokeswoman for Charter 77, his father, Julius, an important philosopher.

According to Marek Tomin those days were a world away, indeed.

"It was certainly a time very different from the one we're living in now. I mean, we are living in very sunny times - those were times that were very dark. Certainly everyone that was involved in the dissident movement, and that included the families of dissidents, were under this 'blanket'. We had state security - StB - surveillance for 24 hours a day directly in front of the door to our flat. We had friends of ours - the Benda family - who were sentenced to four-and-a-half years in the 1970s, and I was constantly expecting my parents to go on trial and to be sentenced to prison. As kids we faced that threat for our parents going to prison, simply for saying what they thought was right, and that human rights were important."

So, while the trial of Jiri Simak and Zbynek Dudek continues, is it enough, given how few were brought to justice overall? And, have Czechs really come to terms with this ignoble chapter in their recent past? Marek Tomin once more:

"I don't think that Czechs have properly come to terms with the whole post-68 era. I think that's one of the things that are very much lacking in Czech society today. I mean, it's too little a little too late. In general, Czech society hasn't really come to terms."