Slovakia debates "naming and shaming" figures from the communist past

Slovakia spent 51 years building up socialism and Soviet styled communism. All of that occurred between 1948 and 1989 when Slovakia was a part of Czechoslovakia. There are people who spent their entire adult life under communism and there are thousands whose lives were destroyed because they disagreed with those in power. Anca Dragu reports on why, 18 years on, there are attempts to "name and shame" figures from the communist past.

Devin is a sleepy suburb of Bratislava located at the point where the river Morava flows into the Danube. Austria lies only 10 meters away over the Morava. Until 1989 the Slovak shore was covered with barbed wire and and a tall fence. Nowadays a monument stands in the same place. It looks like a stone gate riddled with bullets. It bears the names of a few hundred people who had been shot while trying to cross the border and escape to the free world. Who shot them and persecuted their families? Miroslav Lehky was a dissident under communism and got involved with Charta 77, a movement fighting for human rights in Czecholsovakia at that time. Nowadays he is working for the Nation's Memory Institute supervising researchers who dig into the archives of the communist secret police, the famous, or better said, infamous Stb.

"The law allows the Nation's Memory Institute to ask the prosecutor to investigate the crimes committed by informers, agents or officers involved in the activities of Stb or other special units of the army and Ministry of Interior between until 1989. Unfortunatelly nobody has been charged in Slovakia although the Czech republic saw a few cases. Only for those shot at the border we have about 300 victims whose cases have been reconstructed from archive. Besides this we have thousands of people who had been arrested for no reason and in many cases we know who did it and they are still alive, some of them doing very well."

For the time being Nation's Memory Institute, which was established in 2002, keeps on publishing on the internet the names of those who were involved in the activities of the repressive bodies of the communist regimes. The latest such action took place last Thursday when it published 764 names of former members of the 12th unit of the feared communist counter-intelligence unit on its web page. Jergus Sivos a researcher at the institute gives more details.

"This unit, with its headquarter in Bratislava belonged the Federal interior ministry, and was established on the order of the-then interior minister on May 20, 1974 as part of the reorganisation of central units of Czechoslovak counter-intelligence. It had three departments, one in charge with following Slovaks who were perceived as critics and opponents of the regime, the second was in charge with foreigners coming into contact with Slovaks including diplomats and foreign journalists and the third one tried to protect the local economy from espionage and sabotage."

The documents published last week also offer pictures of the commanding officers besides biographical data and a short description of their career while at the same time publishing the names. You may ask, ok so there are documents proving that these people were involved in commiting crimes, we know who they are so why is it difficult to send them to courts? Miroslav Lehky explains.

"Because under the current legislation judges decide that officers obeyed the orders of their commanders and cannot be punished for it or the crime was prescribed. Therefore we plan to ask the Parliament to decide that the crimes of former repressive units of the communist state should be regarded as crimes against humanity and cannot be prescribed. This includes shootings at the state borders between 1948-1989, and the denial of freedom to innocent people during this period. We don't only focus on the "monste processes of the 1950's. People were deprived of their freedom right up until the fall of communism, and were accused of crimes that they hadn't committed, even though in the 1980's punishments usual in the 1950's such as life imprisonment and the death penalty were no longer employed."

The daily SME has discovered a current judge and a succesful lawyer among those 764 whose names published by the Nation's Memory Institute. The daily interviewed two of them and both denied commiting any crimes and think that the Institute has a very simplistic approach. Both of them say they simply did their job and have nothing to regret.