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Penal Code

Other than for the period of Nazi domination, Czechoslovakia operated under two different penal codes for the first thirty-two years of its existence. Bohemia and Moravia used the Austrian Penal Code, which had been in effect in those areas before independence, whereas Slovakia used the Hungarian Penal Code. Both codes had been amended during the years of independence, but no distinctively Czechoslovak code had been formulated until the KSC hastily improvised one after the coup.

This 1950 Penal code was harsh and repressive, reflecting the siege mentality of the communist elite, who felt threatened by the people they ruled. Amendments in the mid-1950s eliminated some of the harshest aspects, and a new code was issued in 1961, with a revision in 1973. The 1961 code underwent no significant altercation during the Prague Spring in 1968.

The Czechoslovak Constitution of 1960 guarantees basic political freedoms while negating them in Article 34, which states that citizens are "in all their actions to pay heed to the interests of the socialist state and the society of the working people." This article thus provides a way for laws to be written that infringe on rights guaranteed elsewhere in the Constitution.

Still in effect in late 1987, the Czechoslovak Penal Code of 1961 enroached upon such constitutionally guaranteed rights as freedom of speech, the press, and association. According to provisions of the cods's "Sedition" sectioon, people participating in mass demonstrations "against the Republic, its organs or public organizations of the working people" could be punished by sentences of up to 15 years' imprisonment, and under certain circumstances--for example, proof of conspiracy, acts resulting in death, or acts committed during a declared defense emergency--even death. Article 98 dictated punishments for "subversive activity against the social and governmental system of the Republic, against its territorial integrity, defensive capacity or independence, or against its international interests." Article 100 specified prison sentences of up to five years for inciting two or more people against the subjects enumerated in Article 98 or "against the alliances or friendly relations between the Republic and other states." Articles 102 and 104 allowed for prison sentences for those who "publicly defame" the state or its officials or those of any state "belonging to the world socialist system." Article 112 stipulated prison sentences of up to three years for persons harming the interests of Czechoslovakia abroad.

Thus, the Penal Code provided that those who criticized the Czechoslovak government or its policies would be imprisoned. Sentences tended to be more severe for crimes against the state or state property than for crimes against the person or personal property. The death penalty, although infrequently carried out, was permitted for several crimes against the state and for a few heinous crimes against the person.

The 1973 revisions to the code increased the maximum allowable prison sentence from fifteen to twenty-five years for so-called antisocialist crimes. The death penalty was extended to cover hijacking or kidnapping crimes in which death resulted and to cover cases in which such crimes were committed during a state of emergency. Penalties were increased for fleeing the country and for disclosing state secrets abroad. Articles 106 and 107, concerning state secrets, were expanded to include so many area of information about the government, the economy, the military, and other institutions that news coverage became almost meaningless. Published articles or public statements only mildly critical of the regime have led to arrests and conviction, and criticisms of the Soviet Union or of Soviet involvement in Czechoslovakia have resulted in prison sentences.

Although the 1961 code was harsh, it was never adhered to strictly. The KSC often issued secret instructions to judges to ensure that certain court rulings would be in accord with its wishes. The Dubcek reformers attempted to stop this practice during the period of the Prague Spring, but it was resumed during the subsequent period of "normalization."

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Penal Code with its amendments allowed the regime to protect itself against any further democratization attempts. When the Charter 77 movement emerged, the laws that the authorities could use to crush the incipient democratic force were in the code. Because the offenses for which people were being arrested, e.g., signing Charter 77 or speaking publicly against repression, could be construed as crimes under the Penal Code, those arrested were charged as criminals when in fact they were political offenders.

In 1984 the government introduced a form of punishment for political prisoners called "protective supervision," a kind of internal exile and house arrest. In two such cases, Charter 77 signatories Ladislav Lis and Jiri Limomisky were required to report daily to a local police station at a specific time, seven days a week. Violations, including tardiness, could be punished by additional sentences. Those subject to such measures were also subject to house searches at any time.

Data as of August 1987

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