Czechoslovakia: "Decommunization" Measures Violate Freedom of Expression and Due Process Standards

What course Czechoslovakia now takes -- a widening "witch hunt" or a narrower focus, with due process protections, on those individually responsible for past human rights abuses -- will have an impact not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the present and former Communist world.

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When he took office in January 1990, Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel spoke out against the impulse for vindictiveness in the wake of over forty years of Communist rule. "We cannot lay all the blame on those who ruled before," President Havel asserted, "not only because this would not be true but also because it could detract from the responsibility each of us now faces." Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia has not followed the course suggested by President Havel. In February 1991 a special commission was asked to review the files of the StB, the repressive former secret police agency; it publicly named Parliamentary "collaborators," using procedures that lack basic elements of due process. In October, a new "lustration" law was passed that bars from a variety of governmental and other public positions individuals who held certain Communist party or related posts or who are alleged to have collaborated with the secret police. As many as a million people could be affected, according to the International Labor Organization, and Helsinki Watch has observed evidence of a "witch hunt" that already exceeds the literal terms of the law. In December, Parliament declared it a crime to propagate such ideologies as communism and fascism. Although the December law is vaguely worded and may prove impossible to enforce, it strikes at core freedom of expression values and raises serious concerns about the government's respect for international human rights guarantees.