Czech ex-leaders charged over communist-era border killings

Prague (AFP) –


Three Czechoslovak leaders are facing prosecution for abuse of power over their role in communist-era border killings, Prague prosecutors said Tuesday.

The Czech police's office for investigating communist crimes (UDV) blames former Communist Party chief Milous Jakes, Czechoslovak prime minister Lubomir Strougal and interior minister Vratislav Vajnar for the deaths.

It says they allowed the use of weapons against those who wanted to leave the communist country for West Germany or Austria.

On Tuesday, with the agreement of the Prague prosecutor's office, the UDV launched proceedings against all three men.

"They were aware that firearms were being used by the border guards against those who wanted to cross the border" to leave Czechoslovakia, said a statement from the prosecutor's office.

"In spite of this,... they did not take any steps to prevent the use of firearms," it added. "Because of their inaction... nine people were shot dead or killed by dogs and at least seven were injured."

Czechoslovakia signed the UN's 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that gave people the people the right to leave any country, but the prosecutor's position is that they did not implement it.

The Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) has registered at least 266 people who died trying to cross the border in 1948-1989.

Most were shot dead by border guards or killed by electrical fences, while others were blown up by mines or killed by dogs.

Jakes, 97, led the Communist Party until the peaceful Velvet Revolution of 1989, which toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia. In 1993, the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Strougal, 95, and Vajnar, 89, quit their government jobs in 1988.

Unlike other post-communist countries in eastern Europe the Czech Republic has never banned the Communist Party. It now tacitly backs the centre-left government of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, giving it a parliamentary majority.

Few former Czechoslovak communist leaders have been put on trial for crimes committed during the four decades of their rule.

While Strougal and Jakes have over the years faced other communist-era charges, they have always been cleared.