Communist officials stand trial for "Asanace" operation

Former Communist officials, photo CTK

Five former Communist officials went on trial in Prague on Monday, charged with abuse of office in cases that date back more than 20 years. In the late 1970s, officials masterminded a plan to force anti-Communists dissidents to flee Czechoslovakia. The operation - codenamed "Asanace" or "Clearance" - was launched by the former Interior Minister Jaromir Obzina, who is one of the five men standing trial. Pavla Horakova has more.

Former Communist officials,  photo CTK
Between 1978 and 1984, the operation targeted some 50 anti-Communist dissidents who had signed the "Charter 77" human rights declaration, in an attempt to force them to leave Czechoslovakia. The secret police put extreme pressure on the signatories, threatened and intimidated them, repeatedly interrogating them and frequently using physical violence.

Those who fled under the pressure included the writer Karol Sidon, who became the country's chief rabbi after 1989, and musicians Jaroslav Hutka, Vlastimil Tresnak and Vratislav Brabenec - saxophonist for the famous Plastic People of the Universe. Writer Pavel Kohout and actor Pavel Landovsky, among others, were stripped of their citizenship and not allowed back into the country after foreign trips. The Czech President Vaclav Havel was also on the list but stayed in the country and was later imprisoned. Political commentator Petruska Sustrova is herself a former dissident.

"Those people arrived in a whole different environment, where they often didn't know the language and quite certainly they didn't know the culture and customs of the country and they had no friend or attachments there. The dissident community here in Czechoslovakia was really very close to one another, because the outer pressure forced people together and it was extremely difficult to leave the country."

The officials - who maintain their innocence - could face up to ten years in prison if found guilty, and police are preparing suits against 13 other former officials. Several low-ranking secret service agents have already been convicted and given suspended sentences for beating up dissidents and using other violent methods to force people out of the country. The Czech authorities have been slow to prosecute crimes committed during the Communist regime. Former dissidents will welcome Monday's trial, but many say it's too little, too late.