A witch-hunt in Prague

November 20, 1991

By Sally Low
and Peter Annear

PRAGUE — Czechoslovakia's lustrace or political screening law came into effect on November 5. Even if the constitutional court, which has not yet been established, rules that the law should be amended or annulled, such a process will take a year. "In the meantime", says Jan Kavan, "they can purge quite a lot of people".

Since March, when he, along with nine other federal MPs, was named in parliament as someone listed on former secret police registers of agents, Kavan has been working without pay and trying, through the courts, to prove his innocence. We spoke with him during a busy lunch hour at the federal parliament, where he is now shunned by some of his former colleagues from the democratic opposition to the Stalinist regime.

For Kavan, a former left dissident who, during 20 years in exile in Britain devoted himself to supporting the democratic opposition in this country, to be branded a secret service (StB) collaborator is a bitter irony. The very same repressive apparatus in the '50s jailed his father, harassed his English-born mother and in the '60s detained him and finally forced him into exile.

The information which would allow him to prove his innocence has been withheld by the new Ministry of the Interior, despite legally binding orders for its release to the courts.

Along with other parliamentarians, Kavan voted to empower a body called "the Commission of November 17" to investigate if there were people guilty of human rights abuses under the former regime among the parliamentarians. Now, he says he was naive.

It has set in train a process "whose closest historical parallel is the McCarthy witch-hunt in the US". It is possible the number of purges will exceed those carried out during the 1970s "normalisation", when half a million reform Communists were expelled from the party and many also from their jobs.

Using the principle of collective guilt and presumption of guilt, the law bans from most public offices for five years former members of the people's militia, registered StB collaborators, Communist Party officials from the rank of district committee presidium up and anyone who studied at certain universities in the Soviet Union for more than three months. The ban also covers companies in which the government is a majority shareholder. Private companies are also entitled, and in the present political atmosphere even encouraged, to submit their employees to the screening process.

Kavan was affected by an earlier stage of the lustrace process in March. All members of parliament whose names appeared on StB registers were given the choice to quietly resign or be named in parliament without the chance to appeal. Ten refused to resign.

The Ministry of Interior's failure after eight months to release documents about Kavan to the court, is, he thinks, politically motivated. It is aimed both at him personally and also to "ensure November 17 and the whole process will not be publicly discredited before the elections" in June.

His ideas and history made Kavan unpopular in the parliament even before he was named. "I'm a former dissident, I spent 20 years in the West, and I'm on the left — the three worst possible features. Here the best thing is if you discovered politics in December 1989 and then immediately began to support the right wing without having any original ideas of your own."

For the right, lustrace "is a part of the political struggle against the left and those they consider to be their political opponents. It's about politics, not about law and definitely not about punishing those individuals who are really guilty", claims Kavan. It also enables the right to fill key positions with people they trust.

This law will cover the medium and lower level collaborators, while those responsible for the system will not be discovered. It does not distinguish between reform Communists and those who jailed them.

"Ironically, if the lustration law was applicable to me it would have helped. Among the so-called secret service collaborators, three categories have been singled out as people about whom there is some doubt. These three categories, in one of which my name was found, can appeal to special commissions." This law does not apply to MPs but, Kavan says, a fellow MP has offered him such a job so that this particular part of the law can be tested.

Because he is sure his case will be dragged out until after the close of nominations for next June's federal election, and because the next parliament will be "even more right wing than the current one", Kavan does not think he will stand for re-election.

"If, and that's a major if, there is some freedom of the press here, I think I can do more positive things by working as a journalist, which is my profession. At the moment that is difficult because most newspaper editors are very reluctant to publish views not supported by the majority of this parliament.

"I don't think running for parliament is necessarily the only way one can work for more democracy ...

"We are now in the process of creating the International Network for Democratic Solidarity, which will link all political groups and forces in all the post-Communist countries who are worried about the fate of democracy in our countries. We are worried about any threat to democracy by any authoritarian forms of politics and behaviour of whatever political colour."

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