Mining disaster kept secret by the communist authorities

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The truth about one of the biggest mining disasters in former Czechoslovakia may finally be discovered after nearly twenty years. An explosion in the Pluto mine in northern Bohemia back in 1981 left 65 miners dead, but proper investigations into the main cause of the tragedy have never been conducted. Alena Skodova reports:

The head investigator at the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, Ilja Pravda, has asked the state prosecutor in the North Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem to re-open the case of this nearly forgotten tragedy. To date, no one has tried to investigate why the accident actually happened. The communist regime did all it could to conceal the disaster from the general public, and so, according to the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, which broke the story, all those responsible have escaped punishment.

The director of the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, Irenej Kratochvil, told the press that this was a unique case for his office, due both to its character and the number of victims involved. "It's very strange that no one has been brought to the court so far," he added. In addition to 65 dead miners, there were 13 miners seriously injured and 15 lightly injured in the accident. At the time, the damage caused was estimated at 50 million Czechoslovak crowns, and rescue teams worked at a depth of 400 metres to save the lives of miners trapped below ground.

An investigation was launched almost immediately after the tragedy, and the communist leadership, headed by the then-Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal, arrived at the site within a few hours. But even though a special investigation commission was appointed, all of the evidence collected eventually ended up in state archives. Practically all those connected with the case faced serious problems; investigators were frustrated that nobody showed interest in the results of their work, but the fate of the miners who survived was much worse: some have been on disability pensions since 1981, many were not able to find a new job, one of them, who did not agree with keeping the affair a secret, spent a long time in a psychiatric clinic.

The main motives that led the representatives of the totalitarian regime to the halt of criminal prosecution are not clear. The prosecutor might have been told to do this on the order of the Communist Party, but no such document exists.

The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes recently decided that there was no good reason for halting the investigation and hiding the evidence collected. Now, some 10 people could face charges in connection with this tragic accident.