In memoriam: Petr Uhl, Charter 77 co-founder, human rights activist, journalist and politician

Petr Uhl

Petr Uhl, a co-founder of the Charter 77 human rights movement along with Václav Havel and among the longest-imprisoned dissidents under the communist regime, has died at the age of 80. Although a lifelong leftist, Petr Uhl never joined the party and was among the most vocal opponents of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and the persecution of political activists. The dissident, journalist and later politician was widely respected for the courage of his convictions.

Petr Uhl was born in Prague in October 1941, two years into the Second World War, and four years after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. His father was a leftist, and in his youth Uhl himself became a committed Marxist but refused to join the Communist Party.

In the late 1960s, he had joined a different leftist movement, and a few months after the Soviet-led invasion crushed the Prague Spring reform movement founded the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which sought to counter the “normalization” of the occupation.

Petr Uhl | Photo: VONS

In an oral history interview for the Memory of the Nation project, he recalled his arrest in December 1969 by the StB, the Communist-era secret police, on charges of sedition.

“We went from [being interrogated at] Ruzyně to our apartment, where they did a house search. My mother asked, ‘What did my son do?’ I was not yet charged, it was legally complicated, but I was listed as a suspect in the crime of sedition.

“Major Váňa said, ‘He is suspected of sedition.’ My mother said, ‘Of sedition? Well, I also disagree with what’s happening here. I’m outraged too.’ – She misunderstood the meaning of the word and said, ‘So, gentlemen, you should lock me up, too’.”

Petr Uhl would spend the next four years in prison. If anything, he emerged from the experience even more determined to reform the oppressive system.

In late 1976, he and his wife Anna Šabatová – who had herself spent three years in prison as a political prisoner – were expecting their second child. It was she, he recalled, who suggested a key strategy for the survival of the emerging Charter 77 movement.

Anna Šabatová | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio

“We were together in the attic, hanging nappies to dry. My wife had read the Charter and said she thought it was quite good – except that there should be not just one spokesman but several.

“I said we’d chose from Jan Patočka, Václav Černý or Jiří Hájek. She said, ‘But there should be three to distract the StB. A single person would be under a lot of pressure in isolation. And there should also be someone younger: Václav Havel’.”

The Charter 77 human rights movement went on to become the main platform of peaceful opposition to the communist government. Petr Uhl also helped establish the Committee for the Defence of Unjustly Prosecuted (or VONS, by its Czech acronym).

For working to help politically persecuted activists, in May 1979 he was again imprisoned, this time for five years. In the same oral history interview for the Memory of the Nation project, he recalled the desperation he felt being unable to help Charter 77 and VONS carry out their work.

“I was in custody at Ruzyně and let outside for only half an hour a day. There was a roofless cubicle in the fresh air, maybe 3x5 meters big. The walls were made of concrete, but the doors were wooden. Once, sometime in June, I saw that someone had scratched a message on the door that said ‘12 new members joined VONS’.

Petr Uhl in 1989 | Photo: Czech Television

“I believed it and felt much better. We all clung to the hope that Charter would continue, that the sacrifice – because imprisonment is a certain sacrifice, also knowing you might end up there – that it meant something. That it wasn’t for nothing. It was the most critical period of the Charter, but I [behind bars] did not experience it personally.”

After his release from prison in 1984, Petr Uhl worked as a boiler stoker but continued to publish samizdat and information about Charter 77, and joined VIA, a group of Soviet bloc dissidents trying to provide independent news.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he became a member of parliament and the head of the national news agency, CTK. He was also a later government envoy for human rights. He is survived by his wife Anna Šabatová, this country’s first ombudswoman for human rights, and three children.