420. Telegram From the Embassy in Czechoslovakia to the Department of State1



  • Czechoslovak Police Attack Religious Demonstrators.


  • Prague 1444.2
Confidential—Entire text.
Summary: Numerous Western media and eyewitness accounts have confirmed that Czechoslovak police reacted with force and extensive brutality to a demonstration by several thousand Catholic faithful and activists in Bratislava on the evening of March 25. Police and militia, making liberal use of truncheons, mace and tear gas, water cannon, sirens, and vehicles—which they drove through and at participants—detained and struck Western journalists and made numerous arrests. Journalists were held at a Bratislava police station, in some cases well into the night, and required to complete a questionnaire that attempted to assay their prior knowledge of developments. The BBC correspondent, who like his colleagues found his credentials of no avail, was struck before and after his detention. Demonstrators, who were calling for the filling of vacant bishoprics, religious freedom, and the honoring of human-rights commitments, included many older persons and probably would have been significantly more numerous but for road blocks and stoppages of public transport. A Catholic activist has told us that Western reports that there were 2,000 demonstrators underestimate both the actual number and the total (some 10–15,000) who tried but failed to make it to the square. VOA correspondent (protect), who was not detained, commented to us on the apparently pre-planned police approach, which seemed to envision confrontation with youth rather than the peaceful witnessing of aged believers. Official accounts of the demonstration have emphasized the view that it was “directed from outside Czechoslovakia” and singled out VOA and RFE as alleged organizers. This event, the highest-profile human-rights debacle here since the March, 1987 Jazz Section trial,3 calls attention to the yawning gap between form and substance in Gorbachev-era Czechoslovakia. End summary.
[Page 1382]

The Demonstration—Highlights

From the eyewitness and media accounts we have obtained, we piece together the following highlights of Friday’s events:
Throughout the day March 25 police detained in their homes Catholic activists in Bratislava and elsewhere, conducted searches, and maintained roadblocks and “technical vehicle inspection” points in many areas of the country.
Police, present in force on and around Hvezdoslavovo Square and throughout the vicinity and backed up by units of the People’s Militia, drove into the square shortly before 6:00 p.m. and ordered participants to disperse or face arrest. Demonstrators, including many older men and women with lighted candles, remained in place and began singing the national and Papal anthems. Police attempted to drown out the singing with sirens.
At about 6:30, police cars and water cannon vehicles began driving into the crowd and charging demonstrators. When three older women refused to move, drivers gunned their engines while police moved in on foot, attacked male demonstrators with truncheons, and began making arrests. Police sprayed mace into the faces of several participants.
Police systematically detained all persons, including journalists, with recording or video equipment. Several journalists, including BBC correspondent David Blow, were beaten. Police confiscated recording and video tape and damaged some equipment.
Journalists and some 100 demonstrators were taken to a nearby police station where some (including some Western correspondents) were again struck with truncheons. Police ignored press credentials and insisted that correspondents complete a twenty-point questionnaire that, apparently, sought to establish their prior knowledge of events. Austrian ORF correspondent Barbara Coudenhouve-Kalergi and others were held until 3:00 a.m. and released.
Roadblocks, heavy police presence in central Bratislava, and stoppages of public transport before, during, and after the demonstration prevented numerous participants from reaching the scene.
Before and during the demonstration, police in street-cleaning vehicles drove around the square, some visibly brandishing crow-bars.
Journalists and Czechoslovak participants found policemen unusually excitable and fearful. Detainees reported widespread use of alcohol by police in vehicles and noted several interrogators drinking wine during examinations.
To our knowledge, no Prague-based Western diplomats were present at the demonstration.
[Page 1383]

Official Explanations

Several aspects of Czechoslovak official media treatment of this event intrigue us:
Rude Pravo, Bratislava Pravda, and Czechoslovak radio all emphasized supposed external orchestration of the demonstration and singled out VOA and RFE as alleged organizers. Rude Pravo’s coverage also spoke of “persons from illegal church structures,” who had attempted to organize the demonstration in order to disturb church-state relations and discussions taking place with the Vatican.
A March 24 article in Bratislava Rolnicke Noviny by Canon Stefan Zareczky, dean of the Bratislava seminary, claimed that when he heard that Western radios “want to support the apostolic activity of our believers,” he at first rejoiced but then reflected how unfortunate it was that they had selected March 25 “when believers attend devotions of the stations of the cross at all our churches.”
At least one Slovak press report claimed that Friday’s events were organized by the Canada-based World Slovak Congress.
Comment: This event, because of its wide media impact and the extensive brutality it involved, seems likely to assume a higher profile than any human-rights debacle here since the March, 1987 Jazz Section trial. It occurred, unlike the doings of security forces in the hinterlands, under the full glare of Western media attention and revealed clumsy overreaction on the part of a police establishment that clearly was not answerable to whatever elements of the Jakes leadership that may be sensitive to the prerequisites of image. Like the heavy-handed reaction in Prague on March 6 to the prospect of a Catholic manifestation in support of the grass-roots religious-liberty petition and the Blessed Agnes, it revealed the near-paranoid concern on the part of the establishment lest religion take uncontrolled new root here. The security forces and their party superiors appear to assume that there is a finer degree of coordination amongst activists, Western diplomats and governments, journalists, and the Vatican than is the case. A Czechoslovak official source commented to FRG DCM (protect) recently that Westerners should not underestimate the conservatism and independence of the police and the Interior Ministry bureaucracy. Emphasis in the official media on presumed outside organizers and the singling out of VOA and RFE as especial culprits testify to the pervasiveness of these elements’ fear. By their excesses, the “organs” draw concerted attention to the still-yawning gap between the regime’s Gorbachev-era protestations of “democracy” and “religious liberty” on the one hand and reality on the other. End comment.
Moscow minimize considered.
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Rudolf Perina Files, Czechoslovakia—Bilateral 1988. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to USIA, Eastern European posts, Paris, Vienna, Moscow, and Rome.
  2. Telegram 1444 from Prague, March 9, reported the arrest of 20 Czechoslovak citizens, including dissidents and religious and cultural activists. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D880204–0318)
  3. See “U.S. Criticizes Czech Jazz Trial,” New York Times, March 13, 1987, p. A10.