Police seek lifting of immunity for communist-era prison warden turned MP

Josef Vondruska, photo: CTK

The lower house's mandate and immunity committee received an unprecedented request from prosecutors this week - to lift an MP's immunity so he can be investigated for alleged offences committed during the communist regime. Police want to question Communist Party MP Josef Vondruska following charges of brutality filed by former political prisoners.

This November will mark 18 years since the beginning of the Velvet Revolution that led to the overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia, but Czechs are still coming to terms with forty years of totalitarian rule. From 1972 until 1990 Josef Vondruska was a warden at Minkovice prison near Liberec, whose inmates included many political prisoners. Former inmates remember him as a brutal and cruel man, who meted out inhuman punishments such as being forced to lick clean the toilet bowl with their tongue. Jiri Gruntorad, a political prisoner who spent three years at Minkovice, had this to say to Czech Television:

"For instance one year my Christmas present from him was spending the Christmas period in the punishment cell, which we called "the hole". At night they'd throw you a blanket and open the window - the toilet would freeze over and in the morning you'd wake up under a layer of snow."

Minkovice was built inside the grounds of a factory. The prison served as a work camp, where inmates were forced to make luxury goods such as chandeliers and jewellery for export - unwittingly keeping the regime afloat with desperately-needed foreign currency. The inmates - who were paid a pittance for their work - say they were subject to severe physical and psychological abuse.

Josef Vondruska,  photo: CTK
Czech Television alleges Josef Vondruska was so brutal he was even warned by his superiors. He denies the allegations, saying he might have been tough on prisoners but nothing he did violated the law. And, he says, he has no intention of volunteering his parliamentary immunity.

"I see no reason to do so. I didn't break any lawful regulations, so I don't see why I should act as if I had."

The matter now rests with the Chamber of Deputies' mandate and immunity committee, which must decide whether to meet the Liberec prosecutor's office's request and release Mr Vondruska for prosecution. The leader of the Communist Party, Vojtech Filip, told Czech Television he would not prevent the police from carrying out their investigation.