Cold War murder trial adjourned almost as soon as it started

Prague's City Court was due to begin the trial of two elderly men on Monday in connection with a murder case that goes back almost 50 years. The two men, Milan Michel and Stanislav Tomes, are accused of sending a letter bomb to a senior French politician, whose wife was killed by mistake. However the case was adjourned almost as soon as it started, due to the men's age and ill health.

Milan Michel,  photo: CTK
This case dates back to 1957, the darkest days of the Cold War. The two men were members of Communist Czechoslovakia's intelligence service, the StB. They were involved in a plot to murder a senior French politician, in an attempt to drive a wedge between France and Germany and stave off the creation of what we now know as the European Union.

In May 1957, say prosecutors, Milan Michel and Stanislav Tomes sent a letter bomb disguised as a box of cigars to Andre Tremeaud, the Prefect of Strasbourg. It was addressed to Mr Tremeaud at a session of the European Coal and Steel Community, precursor to the European Economic Community. However the package was not opened for several days, by Mr Tremeaud's wife Henriette, who was killed in the explosion.

Two former Czechoslovak intelligence officers who later defected to Western Europe claim the whole thing was orchestrated by Moscow. The Soviet Union, they say, were concerned about French-German reconciliation and in particular by the planned creation of the European Economic Community, which they saw as a threat to their economic and geo-political interests. The KGB planned to pin the blame on German neo-Nazis, and hoped the ensuing scandal would drive a wedge between France and Germany.

That plan went badly wrong of course. They ended up killing the wrong person. French-German reconciliation, far from slowing, intensified, and the following year the European Economic Community was born.

The court case is the result of ten years of work by the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. Initially the judge returned the case to the state prosecutor's office on grounds of lack of evidence. The state appealed, and the court will now hear the case. The two men face up to 15 years in prison, but given their age and poor health, are unlikely to serve sentences even if they are eventually convicted.