Communist officials face charges of treason

Josef Lenart and Milous Jakes, photo CTK

Twelve years after the fall of communism a number of former high ranking communist officials could face jail. While the former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal is facing charges of abusing his powers, charges of treason are set to be brought against two other prominent Communist Party officials of the 70s and 80s. Alena Skodova reports:

Josef Lenart and Milous Jakes,  photo CTK
Spring 1968 was a time of optimism for Czechoslovakia, when Alexander Dubcek became Communist Party leader and hailed the reform movement known to this day as the Prague Spring. The Party promised to introduce 'socialism with a human face'. But the events that followed brought this to a dramatic and tragic end.

On August 21st 1968 Soviet tanks crushed all hopes for reform. Communist hard liners took over, ready to serve their Soviet bosses. Milous Jakes and Josef Lenart were among them, and now, over 30 years later, they are set to be summoned to court for treason. The Prague state attorney has prepared charges, accusing the two men of going secretly to the Russian embassy the day after the tanks rolled in, to negotiate the establishment of a so-called workers' and peasants' government which would give the Soviet-led invasion a legal foothold.

The Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes is indicting Jakes and Lenart for the third time since 1995. Its spokesman Jan Srb explains why the case around the 1968 invasion has taken so long to come to court:

"There were several reasons for it - firstly there was no clear proof that they had committed a crime, then some of the accused died. But now Milous Jakes and Josef Lenart will stand trial for treason, and we have yet another indictment on the table - that of Karel Hoffman, who - as the person responsible for radio and TV - cut both media off in August 1968, so that people could not hear truthful information."

The man who became Prime Minister in the post-68 government was Lubomir Strougal.

This address to the federal parliament in 1970 broadcast live on Czechoslovak Radio, is typical of numerous speeches, where Strougal defended the Soviet invasion, saying that the Prague Spring was an attempt to break up communist Czechoslovakia. He became one of the key actors in the process of "normalisation", under which hardline communism was brought back, step by step.

While Jakes and Lenart have yet to face trial, Lubomir Strougal was summoned to Prague's City Court this week. The frail 77-year-old faces charges of abuse of power, going back to a time long before he became prime minister. In 1965, as Interior Minister, he is accused of ordering his ministry's inspectors to drop an investigation into three murders allegedly committed in 1948 by the Communist secret police. Mr. Strougal told the court that he had not been trying to block the investigation, but had simply wanted the case to be investigated at a higher level. What Mr Strougal did not explain is why, in that case, the secret police officers never faced trial.

Although the Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes hopes that after 12 years of relative silence, those responsible for one of the darkest episodes in Czech post-war history will be brought to justice. The general public remains skeptical and largely apathetic. Dita Asiedu spoke to Jan Urban, a former dissident, to get his reaction to the recent developments. He sees the core of the problem being the Czech legal system:

"We had to work with old Communist judges and wait for some time to educate and implant new people into a new legal system. So I think that it's the main explanation, and the other would be that there simply was an insufficient will, or demand from the society, the media, and politicians, that these issues are dealt with."

Would you say that it is a little difficult for Czech people to psychologically come to terms with their Communist past. It looks like crimes of Communism are not confronted as much as they ought to be.

"I would have expected that Czech people who definitely do not want to talk about their part in supporting or not fighting against Communism and the Communist Regime would welcome the chance to have a few scapegoats like the three old gentlemen now on trial to clean their memory and their conscience. This did not happen and I think that after twelve years it will not have the effect on the society, and people simply do not bother about their past now."

Could it be that it got the ball rolling, that this is a turning point?

"I do not expect that. It's a really welcome experience and opportunity to start debating these things and the simple fact that justice and law can be looking back even twenty or thirty years as in the case of the former prime minister Strougal, is a teaching experience."

What about the trial itself... witnesses don't show up, the Strougal trial, for example has to be adjourned... how confident are you that justice will be done?

"It's about the ritual, it's not actually about the results. These people may have committed high treason, as I believe they did, but they are in their late seventies or even eighties and it's more about acknowledgement than about punishment."