Former Communist Prime Minister walks free from a Prague court

Lubomir Strougal, photo CTK

This week saw the culmination of one of the Czech Republic's most closely observed court cases in recent years. One of Communist Czechoslovakia's most prominent political figures, the former Prime Minister, Lubomir Strougal, faced up to 10 years in jail in connection with three brutal murders by the Communist secret police, the StB in 1948. Mr Strougal was charged with abuse of power, blocking the investigation into the murders when he was Interior Minister in 1965. But as David Vaughan reports the case ended in anti-climax.

Lubomir Strougal, photo CTK
The case has drawn a great deal of attention. Czechoslovakia's Prime Minister from 1970 to 1988, Lubomir Strougal is one of the most potent symbols of the grim period after the Soviet invasion of 1968. He is also easily the highest former Communist official to face trial since the Velvet Revolution.

But the Strougal case ended in a puff of smoke. On Wednesday the judge in a Prague city court, Tomas Hajek came to a brief and simple conclusion: through lack of evidence, the accused was free to go.

The key piece of evidence had been one small scrap of paper, where Strougal appeared in 1965 to give a clear order for his ministry to block the investigation into the StB murders. But only one witness was willing to vouch for the document's authenticity, and judge Hajek came to the simple conclusion that this was not enough.

Mr Strougal reacted with unconcealed delight, and immediately declared that the verdict was proof of his clean conscience.

"I feel no sense of responsibility for what happened," Strougal declared, adding that he had done all he could to help in the StB murder investigation.

It is here that we come to the core of the problem with trying to bring former Communist leaders to account in today's courts. On the basis of a single charge being dropped through lack of "clear proof" Mr Strougal is now loudly claiming a clean bill of moral health for all that happened over 40 years of Communist rule.

Clearly this was not the court's conclusion; it was simply dealing with specific evidence in a specific case. If today's democratic Czech Republic is to adhere to the principle of the rule of law, former Communist officials can only be tried on the basis of such specific charges, connected with events that often occurred decades ago and are notoriously hard to prove. On top of that, if legal continuity is to be respected, these people can only be convicted if they can be proven to have broken the laws of the time, that is a time when the legal system served the regime.

Over twelve years have gone by since the fall of Communism, and the Strougal case has highlighted what many have been saying for a long time. Justice for the suffering inflicted during forty years of totalitarian rule cannot be brought by the courts. It is simply too late and too complicated, and some would argue that this is also hardly helped by the fact that many of today's judges were already in place long before 1989.

After the verdict, Mr Strougal went back smiling to his cottage in the mountains, saying that he was looking forward to watching the next ice hockey game in Salt Lake City on television. Ironically, in that game the Czech Republic was beaten by Russia, one-nil.