Seeking justice for crimes under communism - but is time running out?

Milada Horáková

When an 86-year-old Czech former communist prosecutor was convicted last year for her role in the judicial murder of politician Milada Horakova, those looking for justice for the crimes committed under communism rejoiced. There was little chance the elderly and infirm woman would serve a day of her eight-year prison sentence, but they saw the verdict as a symbolic victory. But Monday witnessed a turnaround – the conviction was overturned by the Czech High Court.

Milada Horakova, a democratic politician in Masaryk’s First Republic and a resistance figure during the war, was sentenced to death in June 1950 on charges of treason and espionage. Historians now say those charges were trumped up. The show trial, they say, was designed to intimidate enemies of the new Stalinist regime. She was the only female political prisoner ever to be executed by the communists.

The trial last year of former prosecutor Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, the last surviving participant in Milada Horakova’s judicial murder, was seen as something of a breakthrough. Her sentencing to eight years in prison caused a sensation in a country still coming to terms with four decades of totalitarian communism.

Simon Panek
Mrs Brozova-Polednova appealed against that guilty verdict, and on Monday the High Court in Prague overturned the sentence, on the grounds the 58-year-old crime was barred under the statute of limitations. So is this a defeat for those looking for justice? Simon Panek, director of the People in Need NGO which is heavily involved in educating schoolchildren about the crimes of communism, says no.

“The important fact is that the High Court used the statute of limitations to explain why the decision of the lower court from last year couldn’t come into force. The High Court didn’t challenge the actual content of the crime against Milada Horakova - the murder of Milada Horakova by the regime. So the instrument that the High Court used is from my point of view a technical obstacle but the truth of what happened was announced by the court last year and it, I think, remains.”

Vladimir Kovar, Ludmila Brozova-Polednova lawyer, says the High Court’s verdict is final, and the case will not be reopened. Judge Petr Braun, the Municipal Court judge who handed down the original murder sentence, says he is still waiting for official notification from the High Court. This might not be the end of the Milada Horakova case, but with the last living participant entering her late eighties, time is truly running out.