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HUMAN RIGHTS: Spirit of Helsinki, Where Are You?

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The Soviet Union and its six East Bloc clients were among 34 countries that signed a solemn promise in Helsinki 17 months ago to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all. ” Despite this unambiguous pledge, Eastern Europe’s Communist rulers have done almost nothing to fulfill it. Rumania and Bulgaria remain unreformed backwaters of totalitarianism. The Soviets keep hundreds of dissidents jailed, while penalizing and harassing thousands more who have attempted to voice unorthodox views. In the past two months, East Germany has arrested dozens of intellectuals, harassed citizens seeking to emigrate to the West, and exiled its leading folk-pop hero, Balladeer Wolf Biermann (TIME, Dec. 20). Even in Poland, which along with Hungary is the most relaxed of Russia’s client states, the Gierek regime has been attacked by Warsaw intellectuals for the “tortures and abuses” of people arrested after last summer’s food riots. Perhaps the most flagrant violator of the Helsinki spirit is Czechoslovakia, where the grimly totalitarian government of Gustáv Husák has begun a new assault on dissidence and intellectual freedom:


The urgent SOS that echoed through a Prague street last week was banged out on the horn of a locked car by Pavel Kohout, the internationally acclaimed playwright, and his wife Jelena. Surrounding them were Czechoslovak policemen, with revolvers drawn. Having futilely pulled on the handle, the angry police pried open the door with a crowbar and dragged out the frightened couple. After beating Pavel, police shoved the playwright and his wife into a van and drove off to the Ruzyně detention center just outside the capital.

The assault on Kohout, author of such plays as Poor Murderer and The Third Sister, was the most dramatic incident in a crackdown campaign against dissidents ordered by Czechoslovak authorities. Last week more than a dozen intellectuals and former party leaders were taken to Ruzyně, interrogated nonstop for as long as 14 hours and then released—only to have the intimidating procedure repeated in a day or so. Their “crime”: being among the more than 300 Czechoslovaks who have signed Charter 77, a 3,000-word petition that calls upon Communist Party Boss Gustav Husák’s repressive regime to live up to the pledges it made at Helsinki.

The charter’s signatories and the list of those detained last week read like an alumnal Who’s Who of the Prague Spring—the 1968 reform movement led by Alexander Dubček that was brutally crushed by Soviet troops. In addition to the Kohouts, the chartists include former Foreign Minister Jiři Hájek, former Politburo Member František Kriegel, former Party Secretary Zdenek Mlynar, Student Leader Jiři Mueller, Dramatist Vaclav Havel and the widow and son of Rudolf Slánský, the Czechoslovak Communist Party secretary-general who was executed in 1952 during Stalinist-style purges. Dubček, who now holds a minor bureaucratic post in the Forestry Commission in Bratislava, was not among the signers.

Concrete Cases. Although it has been published in the West, Charter 77 has been circulated only underground in Czechoslovakia. Seeming to reassure the Husák regime that it has no political goals, the charter stresses that it “is not an organization” and that it wants only to spur “a constructive dialogue with the political authorities, notably drawing attention to the various concrete cases of the violation of human and civil rights.” In a meeting last week with Western newsmen in Prague, Chartist Kriegel insisted that he and his colleagues were not seeking any change of regime but were merely imploring their government to recognize “freedom of speech, of meeting, of public discussion, of expression.” Said he: “We want nothing more, but nothing less.”

At first the Husák regime seemed shocked that any of its long-cowed citizens would dare speak out so bluntly. However, last week’s police roundup was apparently put into operation in the hope that iron-fistedintimidation would quash the movement before it gained wider support.At the same time, the party-controlled radio, television and press, without disclosing any of the petition’s content, vilified the chartists. Rudé Právo, the party daily, attacked them as “a few offended, vain, shipwrecked failures and self-appointed advocates |who are| in fact agents of imperialism.” The paper also charged that they sought “rights and freedoms that would permit them again freely to organize antistate and antiparty activities, proclaim anti-Sovietism and again attempt to smash socialist state power.” As for those detained by the police, Rudé Právo warned, “Those who lie on the rails to stop the train of history must expect to get their legs cut off.”

So far, at least, there is no evidence that any of those seized have been tortured or committed, Soviet-style, to lunatic asylums. Husák may have limited the scope of the crackdowns to avoid increased criticism from Western Europe, especially from Communist parties anxious to trumpet their newly professed democratic commitment.

In fact, L’Unitá the Italian Communist Party’s daily, printed an editorial last week observing that “from 1968 until today, deep political problems have existed in Czechoslovakia that we have denounced more than once and cannot abstain from condeming today.” Husák’s caution may also be a response to what is thought by East Europeans analysts to be Moscow’s order that its client states do nothing new to draw attention to violations of Helsinki principles-at least until the conclusion of a conference in Belgrade this summer, at which the 35 signatories will review how each of them has been living up to the accord.

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