Prague dissidents see bleak future. Regime's hard line against liberalization continues, they say

For Vlastimil Marek, ``Mr. Gorbachev is no jazz man.'' Along with a half dozen other leaders of Czechoslovakia's celebrated Jazz Section, Mr. Marek recently gathered with this correspondent to mock the idea that East European allies are easing repression thanks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Standing in the rubble of what used to be their offices, the section leaders also mocked the idea that they were treated lightly at their trial last month.

``Look at this systematic police work,'' says Tomas Krivanek, the section's spokesman. Except for a scrap of one poster bearing the inscription ``Jazz,'' the walls were stripped bare, tables turned over, papers strewn about the floor, moving Mr. Krivanek to complain, ``Anyone who says we got off easy should come here.''

The Jazz Section's distresses affect much more than a few musicians such as Marek and Krivanek. Long considered Czechoslovakia's most important and independent artistic organization, the Section's activities spread far beyond jazz, to include art exhitions and publishing. As exiled Czech author Josef Skvorencky has noted, the Section's book series and monographs ``became a haven for authors, artists, and theorists of art interested in genres and trends that were, for all practical purposes, outlawed.''

Alarmed by the Section's influence, authorities banned it and arrested its leaders last September illegal commercial activities. At last month's widely publicized trial, Karel Srp, the Section's chairman, and Vladimir Kouril, his assistant, received sentences of 16 months and 10 months respectively, while the remaining defendents - Krivanek, Cestmir Hunat, and Josef Skalnik - were given suspended sentences.

Because the Jazz Section leaders were expected to receive up to eight years in prison, Western observers such as Janet Fleishman of the New York-based Helsinki Watch group said the sentences, ``although totally unwarrented, were relatively light.'' Since they came at the same time as Czechoslovak leaders were endorsing Mr. Gorbachev's economic reforms in the Soviet Union, other Western observers suggested that the government felt pressure from the Kremlin to begin its own policy of glasnost (or openness).

Jazz Section leaders, along with other Czechoslovak human rights activists, disagree. They describe a continuing bleak cultural atmosphere. Playwright Vaclav Havel tells how police last year forced 72-year-old author Bohumil Hrabal to write a letter disowning his latest book, an autobiographical work, after it appeared in an underground edition.

Postponement of five other dissident trials scheduled for last month means little, Mr. Havel says. Founder of Charter 77, Czechoslovakia's most active human rights monitoring group, Havel believes the postponements merely represented an attempt to avoid bad publicity before Gorbachev's visit earlier this month to Prague. With the Soviet leader back in Moscow, he expects the trials to go ahead.

Even the Jazz Section's own legal difficulties are far from over. Since the trial, Section leaders said police have interrogated scores of activitists outside of Prague. The two imprisoned leaders, Mr. Srp and Mr. Kouril are ``getting skinnier and skinnier, and angrier and angrier,'' said lawyer Josef Prusa.

When their appeal is heard at the end of the month or at the beginning of May, Mr. Prusa expects stiffer sentences. He adds that the three with suspended sentences could be put back in jail. ``I'm pessimistic,'' Prusa said. ``This higher court has a reputation of being stiff.''

Worst of all to Section leaders, at least symbolically, is the destruction of their monument celebrating the 40th anniversary of the UN. In 1980 UNESCO had officially recognized the Section as a cultural group, offering a measure of immunity from attempts by the authorities to suppress it. When American writers John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut separately traveled a few years ago to Prague, they planted trees around the monument. Section leaders say police defaced its plaque sometime in the past three weeks. ``It's incredible,'' said Jiri Exner, a Section leader. ``This government still can't accept any individual activity, no matter how innocent.''

The Section leaders believe they are caught in a power struggle within the Czechoslovak leadership, between those who want to adopt Gorbachev-style reforms, and those who want to continue on a more cautious, conservative course.

``We're pawns,'' Mr. Exner said, ``in the hands of hard-liners within the [Czechoslovak] leadership.''

Instead of looking to Gorbachev, Section leaders place their hopes in help from the West. They are cheered by a visit last month by Charles Alexander, an Englishman who is chairman of the International Jazz Federation. With Mr. Alexander's help, they hope to reestablish the Section.

In addition, scores of Western journalists attended their trial, giving it wide publicity. ``If you want to say we were lucky to get relatively light sentences,'' said Krivanek, ``it was thanks to you Western journalists, not to Gorbachev.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Prague dissidents see bleak future. Regime's hard line against liberalization continues, they say
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today