Justice Delayed For Those Tortured Under Communism

Victims in the former Czechoslovakia have waited a decade to see their captors punished. They may wait forever.

Lori Montgomery,
Philadelphia Inquirer,
November 3, 1999

Half a century ago, Pavel Hubacka was blindfolded, his feet were shackled to the floor, and his hands were lashed to an overhead pulley for his sessions with the Czech secret police.

“I had six serious interrogations, of which three were cruel beyond humanity,” said Hubacka, 74. “One of which lasted 70 hours. All the sessions ended with me being unconscious.”

But Hubacka fared better than many. An estimated 20,000 people died under torture or in prison during Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. An additional 250 were executed, most during the vicious purges of the 1950s. After communism fell in 1989, Czechs vowed to punish the offenders.

But today, no one is in prison. With thousands of other victims of official barbarity under Eastern European communism, Hubacka is vainly awaiting the prosecution of torturers that was promised in the days after the Berlin Wall fell 10 years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989. Since then, only Germany has pursued communist human-rights violators aggressively.

Thick files documenting abuses gather dust on judges’ desks. Ten years after the world watched police beating protesters in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, many Czechs have concluded that the best way to face the future is by turning their backs on the past.

The story is much the same across postcommunist Europe: early zeal to seek justice after 40 years of murder and repression has been dulled by time, indifference and practical realities: If you purge the communist bureaucrats, who will run the state? Is it fair to prosecute the border guard who killed an escapee without reaching for the commander who gave the guard his orders?

Hubacka’s case illustrates the difficult choice Eastern Europe has faced.

In 1948, a team of interrogators at the notorious Statni Bezpocnost (StB) secret police prison in Uherske Hradiste invented another method of torture. A prisoner wore a pair of slippers with metal in the soles, and the interrogators, led by prison commander Ludvik Hlavacka and agent Alois Grebenicek, attached an electrode the size of a coffee cup to his face or neck. Then they turned up the juice.

The spasms caused prisoners to jump as high as 3 feet.

In March 1949, the chief judge in the provincial capital of Brno wrote the Czech Ministry of Justice demanding that “the cruelties at Uherske Hradiste” be investigated.

The slippers were still being used, however, when Hubacka and three companions were jailed in January 1950 for killing an StB chief who had executed members of the anticommunist resistance.

During his six weeks in Uherske Hradiste, Hubacka said, he was repeatedly blindfolded and taken to a soundproof cell. There, interrogators stretched him between floor shackles and a ceiling pulley, beating him with whips and breaking his jaw and sternum.

“They took turns, two and two,” he said. “If I fainted, that meant a break for everybody.”

The slippers were used to persuade Hubacka to denounce a local priest. The session lasted 45 minutes. Although he was blindfolded, Hubacka believes Hlavacka and Grebenicek were at the controls because he heard them call each other “Loisa” and “Comrade Chief.”

Hubacka served 15 years in prison for his crime.

After communism fell, Hlavacka and Grebenicek were indicted for their roles at the prison. In 1996, Hubacka was among more than 70 people summoned to testify.

Then the stalling began.

Grebenicek, whose son now heads the unrepentant Czech communist party, dodged the indictment for more than a year. When hearings were finally scheduled, he and Hlavacka said they were ill.

The judge, Radomira Vesela, a former communist party member, agreed to postponements.

“I’m not going to order someone to court if it means taking them off a respirator,” Vesela said in a telephone interview.

Neither Hlavacka nor Grebenicek is on a respirator, however. Former prison commander Hlavacka, now in his 80s, lives in Prague with his son, who said Hlavacka was senile and refused to call him to the door.

Grebenicek, a robust-looking 77, lives alone in a little house in Uherske Hradiste, from which he recently emerged to soak up some sun.

“I don’t feel guilty at all,” Grebenicek said about the case. “It’s all political.”

In five years, only five minor prosecutions for communist-era abuses have produced verdicts in the Czech Republic. One conviction was overturned on appeal. Three other criminals - a torturer and two border guards who killed escapees - received probation or brief prison terms, which they have avoided serving.

The quest for justice is complicated by the age of the defendants.

“It’s very difficult to prosecute people who committed crimes 40 years ago and are now 80 years old. It’s not accepted well,” said Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel who runs the Prague campus of New York University.

Only in Germany, where East German crimes are pursued by West German judges and investigators, has the barbarism of Eastern European communism been successfully prosecuted.

More than 300 East Germans have been tried for crimes during the communist era, including Egon Krenz, head of state of the German Democratic Republic. In 1997, Krenz was convicted of giving the order to shoot to kill those who tried to sneak past the Berlin Wall. He is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether he will have to serve his six-year sentence.

But in the rest of postcommunist Eastern Europe, many political prisoners bear scars inflicted by men who live down the street, and that has made prosecution unpopular.

“Throughout their lives, people here supported communism,” said Kolja Kubicek, a Prague attorney who defends some of the most famous ex-communists. “With a few exceptions like Havel, the sweeping majority of people were either active party members, supporters of the regime, or at least went with the flow.”

“It’s a farce of justice we are witnessing,” said Pavel Bret, deputy director of the Czech Office for the Investigation and Documentation of the Crimes of Communism.

“If these were Nazi criminals,” Bret said, “they would go to prison even if they were 130 years old. And there is a difference: Nazis were committing crimes against people from another state. Communists were torturing and killing their own people.”