Czech Writer Under Arrest

BEFORE his recent trip to Poland and Hungary, President Bush spoke movingly of the ``changing face of Central Europe,'' the ``new voices'' heard there. While the circumstances of the countries he visited may have justified such speech, in Czechoslovakia the chief effect so far of the ``wave moving through Eastern Europe'' has been to frighten the rigid, authoritarian government in power into more repressive measures. A case in point is the systematic and brutal crackdown on the samizdat (underground) publishing community in force since early this year. In March Ivan Jirous, one of Czechoslovakia's foremost poets and editors, was sentenced to his fourth jail term since 1976. Peter Cibulka, a key distributor of samizdat literature, is currently in custody awaiting trial on the grave charge of ``unpermitted enterprise'' (the prosecution has already interviewed some 500 witnesses in his case). And now, on June 28, Frantisek Starek, perhaps the most important of Czechoslovakia's dissident publishers, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison - plus two years of so-called protective supervision, a house arrest - for ``incitement'' against the state.

This is the second time Mr. Starek, whose act of ``incitement'' was to publish a literary journal called Vokno (Window), has received this sentence. He completed his first term in 1987, but the government began harassing him again: In 1988 he was arrested three times, twice in connection with Charter 77 meetings, the third time for ``having in his possession literature which is prohibited ... by the laws governing printed matter.'' The interesting thing about this arrest is that at that time, there were no such laws in Czechoslovakia. By February of 1989, new legislation made it a crime to own even one piece of ``unofficial'' literature. Starek had the dubious honor of being the first person charged under this tailor-made law.

His arrest in February was followed by a search of the house that served as Vokno's offices. Police drove away van loads of printing equipment, blank paper (in Czechoslovakia, an officially controlled commodity), a complete new run of Vokno, and Starek's personal archive of nearly all the samizdat literature of his country. The charge against him was then changed to the more serious one of ``incitement.''

During his trial, the prosecution made much of the fact that Vokno had published satirical political cartoons, articles about Czechoslovakia's ecological problems (the northern part of Bohemia has been so devastated by strip mining and acid rain that it is often compared to a moonscape), and an excerpt from the expatriate Czech writer Josef Skvorecky's novel ``The Engineer of Human Souls'' that (the Office of Press and Information complained) created the impression ``an atmosphere of fear ... and fascism'' exists in Czechoslovakia. In his closing statement to the court, Starek maintained that Vokno merely offered a dialogue with the powers that be. It is a sign of the weakness of those powers that the prospect of such a dialogue still threatens them beyond endurance.

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