Czechoslovakia bears down on dissent -- and churches

The hard-line Czechoslovakian government is cracking down on dissent in the country in an attempt to insulate itself from the reform movement in neighbouring Poland.

Unlike Poland, where the government has been forced to tolerate -- and work with -- the Roman Catholic Church, Czechoslovakia is bearing down hard on churchmen.

The campaign against the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia started soon after Poland's Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II nearly three years ago. It has mounted steadily.

Last week, it became known that the police net had scooped up two Roman Catholica priests allegedly linked with a third arrested earlier in the industrial region of Olomouc. The authorities ignored a plea by Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, archbishop of Prague, that these and other proscribed priests be allowed to resume their duties.

The three are expected to appear in court shortly. They, along with a fourth priest and three Catholic laymen, are accused of "illegal" religious practice and having links to Christian centers in the West.

The drive against political dissent in general began with the installation of the hardline regime of Gustav Husak after the Russians crushed the Prague uprising of 1968. It has gone on unabated through 12 years of "normalization," during which Mr. Husak became president.

It took on a new dimension with the launch of the famour charter on human rights in January 1977 and was intensified soon after the outbreak of the Polish crisis last summer.

Despite the imprisonment of a succession of its spokesmen, the Charter 77 movement carried on until April of this year, when a French couple carrying materials destined for dissidents in Prague was caught by Czech border guards.

They apparently were trapped by an undercover operation conducted in the West by a Czech policy agent who had passed himself off as a political exile. He had spent nearly four years in Vienna collecting information on emigres and their ties with Prague.

The result was the arrest of some 30 dissidents or their relatives.

Following interrogations for alleged antistate activity, nine were detained and remain in custody on specific charges of subversion, which could send them to prison for up to 10 years.

Meanwhile, two other dissidents came before a Prague court in July. Construction worker Jiri Gruntorad was given four years for his work with a samizdat periodical devoted to philosophy and literature.

Sociologist Rudolf Battek, one of the original signers of Charter 77 and a founding member of its offshoot, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS), was sentenced to 7 1/2 years. His was the heaviest term of the "normalization" process.

Both men are to serve three years of "house arrest" or "internal exile" after their prison terms.

Meanwhile, the returned police agent has been used to build up a television propaganda case against the detainees. It makes strong allegations of "close cooperation" between Czechoslovak and Polish exiles aimed at further "destabilizing" the situation in Poland.

From the start, the Husak regime has betrayed a fear of more direct menace from Polish developments than any of its other East European allies. But the East Germans are almost as vehement in their criticism of the Polish leadership.

Prague seems not to have forgotten that, although the 1968 "spring" was generated largely by Czech intellectuals, it was the trade unions and their followers in the big factories that defended the doomed reform program the longest.

The Poles' new, independent union movement has been the constant target of attacks by the Czech leaders and their news media, especially in the three hours of broadcasts in the Polish language that Prague radio has beamed at Poland each day since spring.

Political detainees awaiting trial include noted journalist Karel Kyncl, who lost his job with Prague television in 1969 after he made a courageous speech (at a Communist Party meeting) challenging Mr. Husak's about-face on the reform movement.

Others are Jiri Ruml, another journalist of the Prague spring, and his photographer son Jan, who was expelled from university because of his father's activites. Jan is one of many young dissidents barred from their profession and forced to turn to manual labor to survive.

Those released to await trial include Jiri Hajek, foreign minister in Alexander Dubcek's government, who denounced the Soviet invasion at the United Nations.

Known and unknown, older and younger, hundreds of Czechoslovaks have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, imprisoned, and victimized professionally and scholastically for demanding the human liberties and cultural exchanges written into the law of all European nations by the Helsinki Accord of 1975.

In Vienna last week, two members of Prague's National Theater added another page to the unhappy story of contemporary Czechoslovakia by asking the Austrians for political asylum.

Martin Stepanek -- son of a famous figure in Czech theater -- and his wife, Jaraslava Tvrznikova said their decision grew out of a long period of pressure on him to join the Communist Party. He recently was warned that, if he did not, his career would be over.

"We have been living in internal emigration for many years," he said here. "Now we feel no option but make it actual. The theater, like all Czech cultural life, has been so subordinated to political influence it no longer has meaning."

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