Czechs Keep Check On Ex-Communists

CZECH lawmakers are not quite ready to forgive and forget their former Communist oppressors.

They extended the country's so-called lustration (screening) law last week, which bars former Communist officials, members of the party-sponsored People's Militia, and secret-police agents and collaborators from holding a wide range of high public offices.

While proponents see it as a compromise, detractors denounce the law as presuming guilt, denying citizens due process of law, and damaging the country's image abroad.

Not wanting to let Communist abuses go unpunished, and preoccupied with the immense task of integrating with Western democratic and legal institutions, the measure was adopted in 1991.

It is a debate that still echoes throughout post-communist Europe, where other countries are also trying to address crimes long protected from punishment. Some states, like the former East Germany, shed light on the activities of the former secret services by making their files public. Others, like Hungary and eventually Slovakia, have avoided stirring the emotional pot with similar vettings. The Czech solution lies somewhere in the murky middle.

When Czech lawmakers last Wednesday overturned a presidential veto and extended the screening law, few saw it as an ideal solution. ''A poor compromise is better than none,'' said Hana Marvanova, the deputy of the ruling Civic Democratic Party, who presented the extension.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose dissident writings earned him the constant attention of Communist authorities, accompanied his Oct. 6 veto of the extension with a blast fired at those who refused to let the law fade away.

Extending the screening law ''seems to me a thoroughly incomprehensible expression of distrust in our own ability to form a normal legal order,'' President Havel wrote in the country's largest-circulation daily newspaper. Extending such a law ''could only cast doubt at home and abroad on our capacity to be a fully fledged member of the family of democratic states.''

A country whose primary foreign-policy goals are membership in the European Union and NATO can scarcely afford to dismiss that point. The United States Congress has criticized the measure, calling it a ''human rights problem'' in a February report.

Based on classified files left behind when the Velvet Revolution restored democracy to what was then Czechoslovakia in 1989, some 10,000 people have been named collaborators. This means only that a name appears on the former secret police, or StB, list - which has not necessarily been checked for errors. ''Nobody asks if they are guilty, if they really collaborated with the StB, if they really formally broke some human rights,'' says Jiri Teryngel, a former prosecutor under the Communists.

Mr. Teryngel was only weeks away from being positively ''lustrated'' as a former member of the People's Militia, an armed branch of the Communist Party, when he left his federal prosecutor's job in 1992. Since then, he has taken on a number of cases contesting lustration judgements in his private legal practice.

The way to do that is to sue the Interior Ministry for defamation of character. The ministry has so far lost a vast majority of those civil cases, but the verdicts do not reverse a positive lustration.

Reliance on the StB lists is also paradoxical, since a 1993 Czech law declared the former Communist regime criminal.

''The lustration law made the evidence of that criminal organization a legitimate part of our legal code, '' says former post-Communist intelligence service deputy director Jaroslav Basta.

But nearly six years after the overthrow of communism, around half of Czechs still want to see former communists punished. During parliamentary debate, one member called to extend the law until the year 3000, eliciting applause from the chamber.

''We missed the opportunity not to forget the past, but to avoid this revenge,'' Teryngel says.

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