The forgotten prisoners of Prague

"Can we speak openly?" I asked Jiri Dienstbier, a leading Czech dissident, as we sat down in the study of his Prague apartment. It was the winter of 1977 in the heady days just after the Czech human rights movement published its manifesto, Charter 77. I really meant to ask if his study was bugged, but he chose to take my question literally.

"Why not?" he replied with a roguish look on his face. "What do we have to lose?"

Dienstbier is no novice when it comes to the Byzantine politics of his country, and it could not have escaped him that he still had much to lose, including his own freedom, when he made that quip. Today he sits in a Prague prison, convicted together with five other dissidents in October 1979.

Their trial last year attracted considerable international attention. A stage version of the trial, written by exiled Czech playwright Pavel Kohout, was shown on West German television, with Simone Signore and Tom Stoppard as members of the cast. The real defendants were all members of VONS, an offshoot of the Charter 77 group.

Although Charter 77 was a Prague phenomenon and basically a protest of the intelligentsia, some workers were arrested and tried for circulating the manifesto. These workers -- especially when they came from outside Prague -- lacked the glamour of ex-politicians and blacklisted playwrights, and as a result their plight was given short shrift in the Western press. To call attention to these little-known trials, a splinter group from the charter formed VONS, the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted. There followed a wave of repression culminating in the trial and conviction of the six VONS members.Prison sentences ranged from three to five years. Dienstbier drew three years.

Dissident sources report that of those imprisoned he seems to be standing up to the harsh prison life the best. Dienstbier was a Prague correspondent in the 1960s, but he was purged soon after the reform-minded Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek left office in 1969. Czechs still remember him from 1968 as the announcer who broadcast a running account of the emergency plenary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party held at a secret location outside Prague while Soviet tanks were rolling through the streets of the capital. Speaking over a tiny mobile transmitter that was relayed to a larger clandestine transmitter and broadcast to the nation and the rest of Europe, Dienstbier reported the party's emphatic rejection of any claim that the invading Warsaw Pact troops had been invited into the country.

The pluck he showed when he spoke to me as if his personal liberty were of little consequence may be what has enabled him to bear up under his first year's confinement.

Dissident sources who have regular contact with him through underground channels report that he has even won extra rations by exceeding his work quota.

Faring far less well among the VONS prisoners is Otka Bednarova, a woman who worked for years as a TV journalist. In poor health before her conviction, her condition deteriorated in prison until she was removed to the prison hospital, where an operation was deemed necessary. When she refused to undergo the surgery, claiming that she was too weak, the authorities returned her to the prison population and declared her fit for work. According to the latest report from dissident sources, Bednarova is now back in the hospital and her condition is feared to be grave.

The prosecution of Dienstbier, Bednarova, and the other VONS members was only part of a protracted campaign of repression that began when Charter 77 was published in 1977 and continues today with serious implications for East-West relations. The charter invoked the guarantees of human rights contained in the Helsinki human rights agreement signed in 1975 by 35 nations, including Czechoslovakia, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

The initial reaction of the regime of Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak to the publication of the charter was swift and harsh. The US State Department officially blamed the Czech government for not living up to the spirit of Helsinki, which should have precluded punishing the chartists. This reaction by the fledgling Carter administration to the punitive measures of the Husak regime became the hallmark of a new foreign policy. Human rights achieved a new currency in international affairs, and dissidents from Prague to Peking had a new forum in which to voice their complaints.

The four years since those days when every new arrest was front-page news in the Western press have been very tough for the Czech chartists. Of the leading figures in the movement, some are in prison, some have emigrated under relentless pressure, and at least two are dead -- Prof. Jan Patocka, one of the first three charter spokesmen, died in 1977, and Frantisek Kriegel in 1979. (Kriegel was the only one among those Czech leaders abducted to Moscow during the 1968 invasion who refused to sign the agreement revoking Dubcek's liberal reforms.) The authorities harassed Patocka's mourners with video cameras, hovering helicopters, and the din of swarming motorcycles, conveniently assembled for a "rally" at the police academy track adjacent to the graveyard.Authorities denied Kriegel the simple honor of a memorial service; his family recovered his ashes five months later.

In the late 1970s, one well-known Chartist, former high party official Zdenek Mlynar, was granted permission for extended travel abroad and then lost his citizenship when the authorities invoked a diabolical bureaucratic Catch-22: They withdrew permission to travel and revoked his citizenship for being abroad without permission.

The regime may well regret ever having allowed Mlynar to leave, since he was enabled to collaborate on the making of a docu-drama produced by Britain's Grenada TV and aired over several West European television networks last August on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Prague. The film, made with Mlynar's close supervision, dramatizes the events in the Kremlin during the days immediately after the Warsaw Pact troops arrived in Prague on Aug. 20, 1968. Soviet leaders met with Czech representatives, including Mlynar and Dubcek, who were virtual prisoners in the Kremlin, and extorted a full retraction of Dubcek's program of liberal reforms. Scenes in the film depict Brezhnev asserting the right to dictate Czech policy because the Soviets shed their blood to liberate Czechoslovakia in 1945. (American television viewers are likely to have the opportunity to see this dramatic film later this fall; negotiations for the American broadcast rights are in progress.)

Compounding the harsh treatment inflicted on them by the authorities of Prague, the Czech dissidents suffer from the relative indifference of the Western press, which prefers to focus on Soviet dissidents who, they assume, make better copy. As one London-based dissident told me of his conversation with a bureau chief of a leading American newspaper, "He told me not to bother him unless I had something new on Dubcek."

In June of this year, Rudolf Battek, then spokesman for Charter 77, was arrested and charged with assaulting a policeman. The incident was reported as a minor item in European newspapers but went entirely unreported in the American press.Dissidents in Prague railed at the director of Palach Press, their news agency in London. (The agency is named after Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself to protest the Soviet invasion.) "I couldn't seem to convey to them," said Palach Press chief Jan Kavan, "that while all of Prague was buzzing with news of Battek's arrest, the foreign editors here, especially the Americans , regarded it as a strictly local affair."

With yet another of their spokesmen imprisoned and the Western press reluctant to publicize their struggle, the Chartists are entering a new stage of isolation. Yet they carry on. On Nov. 11, representatives of the 35 signatories of the Helsinki agreement are convening in Madrid to review the effectiveness of those historic accords. Charter 77 leaders, despite their despondency, have already begun preparing documents to forward to the conference. The documents should show how the Husak regime has ignored the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki pact.

Like the reprisals of 1977 and 1979, the official reaction this time was swift and sharp. Prague police swept up 11 prominent Chartists after two meetings of the main working group of the Charter. The list of those included in the police net reads like a Who's Who of Dubcek officials: two former cabinet ministers, Jiri Hayek and Vladimir Kadlec; two former members of the party Presidium, Bohumil simon and Vladimir Kabrma (Simon was among those who signed the capitulation in Moscow in August 1968); two former members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, Dr. Jirina Zelemkova and Miroslav Jodl; the former director of the Institute of History for the Communist Party, Dr. Miros Hayek. Also detained were two ousted university professors, a current Charter 77 spokeswoman, and Rudolph Slansky, son of the head of the Communist Party deposed in 1952 and hanged after a grotesque show trial.

The recent arrests, and the explicit threats made by the police during interrogation that the detainees may be charged with defiling the reputation of the country abroad, have not deterred the Chartists, who, according to Palach Press chief Kavan, are continuing to gather evidence for the Madrid conference. The charge of defaming the country's reputation abroad is very serious, since, by law, it may lead to conviction regardless of the truth or falsity of the information published abroad. But courage is not enough. In seeking to press their case under the Helsinki accords, the Chartists are dependent on the American delegation to the conference. Kavan expressed fears that the expectations of his colleagues in Prague were unrealistic, based on a belief that the Carter administration will be the same stalwart champion of their cause it was in 1977 less than a week after the new President assumed his duties.

Thus the Madrid conference poses a serious challenge to the US, which, soon after Carter took office, began a bold human rights initiative. In the early days of Carter's administration it seemed that the credit the US won by the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan might be regained. The Czech dissidents were quick to advance that credit with their trust. It was a gamble paid for by some with their personal liberty and by others with the loss of their citizenship. Now they are calling in their debts.The US government, Czech dissidents feel, owes a debt of honor that falls due when the full conference of the Helsinki nations convenes.

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