Charter 77 signatory stages hunger strike over low pensions for ex-dissidents

Jiří Gruntorád

Former dissident and Charter 77 signatory Jiří Gruntorád is on the fourth day of his hunger strike outside the seat of the Czech government in Prague. He is calling for the labour and social affairs minister, Marian Jurečka, to resign over his treatment of ex-dissidents who now live on extremely small pensions.

Jiří Gruntorád is particularly upset about a letter that a fellow former dissident, Karel Soukup, received from the labour ministry, rejecting his request for a pension recalculation that would have allowed him to receive the nationwide average pension. In it, Soukup was allegedly advised to try applying for additional social benefits. Gruntorád says that Soukup receives a monthly pension of CZK 6000 (about EUR 250).

“The minister is behaving in an anti-social way, he is writing nasty letters to people who deserve respect and gratitude. A person who behaves like that towards Charter 77 signatories shouldn’t hold a government position.”

Marian Jurečka and Jiří Gruntorád | Photo: Jana Karasová,  Czech Radio

Mr. Jurečka met with Gruntorád on Sunday in front of the government office where he is holding his protest and the two had an exchange in which Gruntorád repeated his call for the minister to leave his post and said that the core issue was the moral integrity of the government.

For his part, Mr. Jurečka says that his resignation wouldn’t help to resolve the underlying issue and has promised that his office will review all pension recalculation requests, especially controversial cases such as Karel Soukup’s, again this week. He also added that in the case of Karel Soukup, part of the reason his request was rejected was that it turned out he should also be getting a pension from Australia, where he has lived since 1988.

“I think that if we really want to solve the crux of the problem, then it doesn’t make sense for me to resign. At this moment, I don’t know why his pension hasn’t been paid out, if it hasn’t been paid out. On Monday, I am going to verify the information with the Australian side about what the problem is and to help find a solution.”

Jiří Gruntorád and John Bok | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

But Soukup’s case is one of many, and is part of a wider ongoing problem. Many former dissidents who stood up to the communist regime are now living on very low pensions as a direct result of their political activism under the regime. Most dissidents had low incomes during the communist period due to being imprisoned, forced into exile, or not being allowed to go to university and have a career, instead being made to work menial jobs for low pay. Since pensions are calculated based on lifetime earnings, for many dissidents this had a huge impact on the pensions they would later receive.

The labour minister says that a systemic solution is required and has spoken of wanting to push for a change in the law next year. Back in May, he said that the ministry was planning to adjust the pensions of dissidents in consultation with the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Karel Charlie Soukup | Photo: ČT24

However, Mikuláš Kroupa, the founder and head of Paměť národa, a group that documents the stories of people who experienced the Nazi and Communist regimes first-hand, says that the government is proceeding too slowly, and that the problem has been overlooked and ignored by successive governments since the 1990s, despite dissidents’ calls for a solution.

“We know of dozens of cases where the state should absolutely increase the person’s pension. I really like the idea of the state establishing a private foundation, into which the government would invest one or two hundred million crowns. That would be more than enough to help the dissidents.”

This idea originally came from Michal Klíma, who heads a special fund for Holocaust survivors that was established 20 years ago. Kroupa and Klíma advocate for a similar fund for the victims of communist persecution.

However, in the meantime, Jiří Gruntorád continues with his hunger strike, which he says he is prepared to keep up for three months if necessary.

Authors: Anna Fodor , Jana Karasová | Sources: ČTK , Český rozhlas
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