Notorious Communist prosecutor Vaš dies innocent in eyes of law

Karel Vaš, photo: Tomáš Krist, Isifa/Lidové noviny

Communist state prosecutor Karel Vaš, a key player in some of Czechoslovakia’s notorious show trials of the 1950s, died at a Prague nursing home at the weekend. He was 96. Vaš, who remained unrepentant to the last, escaped punishment for his crimes in the post-1989 period – a source of regret to some historians and former political prisoners.

Karel Vaš,  photo: Tomáš Krist,  Isifa/Lidové noviny
Karel Vaš joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia when he was 17. During World War II he was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag – and there began collaborating with Stalin’s feared NKVD secret police.

During research of NKVD files, historian Adam Hradilek of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes uncovered a letter that Vaš sent to the organisation’s headquarters from the camps.

“He explains in the letter that he was always a good Communist and that he’s willing to die for the Communist cause. He later explained himself that he started to cooperate with the NKVD in the Gulag camps and reported on other prisoners that were anti-Soviet.”

The Russians freed Vaš and other Czechoslovaks from the Gulag in 1941 following lobbying from General Heliodor Píka, a hero of both World Wars. That may have saved his life. In a twist of fate, Vaš – by then a state prosecutor – proposed the execution of the general on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage in a 1948 show trial.

General Heliodor Píka,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Adam Hradilek, who interviewed Vaš at his Prague old folks’ home earlier this year, says Píka’s wasn’t the only blood on his hands.

“He was a military prosecutor in the toughest period of the Communist regime, at the beginning of the 1950s. He was responsible for many unjust political trials and was personally responsible for several death sentences.”

In 2001, Karel Vaš – then in his mid 80s – did himself stand trial, on charges of inserting a fake document into General Píka’s file that was used as evidence that he had collaborated with British intelligence. He received a seven-year jail term, but that was quashed by an appeals court due to the statute of limitations.

Vaš, reputed to have been unusually clever, never admitted to any wrongdoing. This recording comes from an interview he gave to the project Paměť národa (Memory of the Nation).

“I did many stupid things out of ignorance. I never harmed anybody deliberately. But I didn’t stand for any crooked behaviour around me.”

Karel Vaš,  photo: Post Bellum archive
Since Monday’s announcement of his death, former political prisoners have expressed regret over the fact that Vaš died an innocent man in the eyes of the law. That view is shared by historian Eduard Stehlík, who is also from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

“Of course he would have belonged in prison. But a court could at least have decided that he played a role in judicial murders, and a very significant role. I’m not a supporter of 80-year-olds ending up in prison. But it should be at least said that he committed crimes. The court should have delivered some verdict with that meaning.”