Mihai Botez is the Andrei Sakharov of Romania. A scientist and human rights activist, he is the key figure in the Romanian dissident community. Apparently because of his beliefs, he now lies in a Bucharest hospital. The Romanian Human Rights League in Paris claims that plainclothes police beat Dr. Botez a fortnight ago on a Bucharest street.
Botez's fate may represent more than a simple personal tragedy. Although Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to release some Soviet dissidents is raising hopes of new tolerance in the Soviet Union, experts say the East European human rights situation is dreary.
Some observers see a continuation of the past level of abuses. Romania, they note, has had the worst human rights reputation in Eastern Europe for years. Others, however, say East European governments may be orchestrating a preemptive crackdown against opponents, lest they make the assumption that Gorbachev-style reform will extend to Moscow's satellites.
Together with Botez's beating, human rights watchers say two more disturbing events took place last week. In the Hungarian town of Kiskunfelegyhaza, witnesses said that one uniformed and one plainclothes policeman interrogated and then drove away with Zsolt Keszthelyi, the first Hungarian since 1949 to refuse military service on political, not religious, grounds. According to two human rights groups, Amnesty International in London and Helsinki Watch in New York, the arrest followed several months of house searches and fines directed against editors of the Hungarian underground press.
Also last week, the lawyer for Jazz Section, Czechoslovakia's independent cultural organization, announced that seven of its leaders will be tried in Prague from March 10 to 12. Communist authorities banned the Jazz Section, which served as a forum for young people dissatisfied with state-run culture, and arrested its leaders last September, charging them with illegal commercial activities. Human rights activists say the trial represents the most significant legal action against Czech dissidents in nearly a decade.
``Put together, all these different cases raise interesting questions,'' says Janet Fleishman of Helsinki Watch. ``They may have something to do with what's going on in the Soviet Union.''
According to Ms. Fleishman and other analysts, East Europe's aging communist leaders are deeply concerned about the effect of the change in the Kremlin on their regimes. The East Europeans fear Gorbachev's moves for ``renewal'' and ``democratization'' might encourage destabilizing domestic opposition. Thus, they may be acting preemptively to nip dissident activity in the bud.
The human rights situation varies among the six Warsaw Pact countries. In Poland, some analysts see an improvement. The Polish government, which long has accepted more dissent than Gorbachev does, amnestied almost all political prisoners last September.
Elsewhere, one could argue that the new hard line only mirrors past repression. Czech Jazz Section members, Hungarian conscientious objectors, and Romanian dissidents such as Mihai Botez all experienced difficulties before Gorbachev's rise to power.
``This type of harassment is pretty standard,'' says a London-based human rights watcher. All the same, he adds, ``these new developments might be connected.''
The motives for the attack on Botez remain unclear. But it follows a speech last month in which Romaian leader Nicolae Ceausescu denounced Moscow's reforms.
Botez has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Romanian government. He was the only dissident willing to speak with this reporter during a visit to Bucharest last year. He used the occasion to denounce the practice many fellow dissidents have chosen of fleeing the country.
``When dissidents protest, face persecution, and then leave for the West, the government can say we only want to get the better living conditions on the other side,'' Botez said. ``If 1,000 of us intellectuals'' would stay, he said, ``then we would have an impact.''
His decision shows him to be a man full of idealism and despair. In 1966, he became the youngest man ever in Romanian history to earn a mathematics doctorate. ``My specialty is computer science,'' he said, on introduction. ``I am an IBM man.''
By 1986, his political activities had led to years of run-ins with the police. Now 47 years old, his academic career is stalled. Though he visited the US numerous times in the early 1970s for his work, he was refused visas 34 times to visit the West between 1977 and 1986. At the beginning of last year, he was authorized to attend a mathematics congress in Madrid, and to visit Romanian friends in Paris. His decision to return to Romania left him with no possibility of publishing his research at home.
Sanda Stolejan, director of the Romanian Human Rights League here, said late last week that she had received telephone calls from friends in Romania saying Botez had been attacked by unidentified men walking in the street. His present condition remains unclear.
Ms. Stolejan suspects the secret police, though she lacks firm evidence. For her, the reason for the attack is clear.
``The Romanian government fears Gorbachev's example,'' she said. ``So they crack down on opposition.''