Saturday, April 26, 2008

Stop the discrimination against foreigners

Article by The Prague Post:

April 16th, 2008 issue

We were at the Foreigners’ Police in Prague early one morning recently, crushed in an anxious mob of people in the first-floor hallway. The hallway leads to a ticket dispenser that, at least in theory, guarantees you a meeting with a bureaucrat in the office, the busiest of its kind in the Czech Republic.

A colleague of ours set her child down for about 30 seconds to get her cell phone out of her purse. Tired of waiting for hours, the crowd chose that moment to surge forward, almost knocking down the little girl, who started crying loudly.

A police officer berated our colleague in front of the crowd. He said if she ever brought a child to the Foreigners’ Police again he would report her to social services, which might take her child away, since she wasn’t being a good mother.

All this came after a long, nightmarish wait in a mob outside trying get in the building. Later in the morning, the numbered tickets proved to be useless, as people spontaneously formed lines at the bureaucrats’ desks, and were taken care of with no regard for numerical order. By that time, the police had left.

If you’re a foreigner trying to do the right thing in the Czech Republic, you know this story already, or some variation of it. It’s part of a larger pattern that makes it hard to believe this country isn’t pursuing a deliberate strategy of making foreigners feel as unwelcome as possible.
Giving the government money is never a problem. We didn’t have to wait even one minute to file a tax return, or register to pay social security fees. Buying private health insurance (foreigners are often seen as a potential burden on social services) took about five minutes.

But God forbid that foreigners should try to do something as simple as, say, own a car. Under the city’s onerous new parking regulations, any permanent resident of the district can get an annual parking permit for 700 Kč ($43.80). But, if you’re not a permanent resident, even with a proper visa and a flat lease in hand, that same permit will cost you 36,000 Kč.

In addition to insulting, degrading and unnecessary, this strikes us as incredibly short-sighted. As the Czech population ages and more educated young people leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere, foreign workers offer a valuable addition to the labor pool. The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry has implicitly acknowledged this with a program encouraging foreigners to apply to be permanent residents.

But there’s already discussion about ending that program.

This country has a well-deserved reputation for xenophobia. It would be smarter for the people running the government to court outsiders instead of driving them away, so they can pay taxes and social security and health insurance fees.

And dare we raise the question of basic fairness? No law-abiding resident should have to endure the mob scene at the Foreigners’ Police, or negotiate to get his car out of an impound lot for a simple parking infraction.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The man who knows too much...

By Markéta Hulpachová Staff Writer, The Prague PostMarch 19th, 2008 issue (reprint authorized)

The Hučín file

Name: Vladimír Hučín

Age: 55

Residence: Přerov, north Moravia

Family: Married, one daughter

Career: BIS counterintelligence service, 1991-2001

Years imprisoned: 1976-77, 1983-86, 2001-02

Hours before his arrest, Vladimír Hučín, a seasoned officer in the counterintelligence service, knew that he was being followed.

The authorities’ noose had been tightening around him for months, and a suspect vehicle full of undercover cops now stood just down the street from his home.

Unfazed by their presence, Hučín embarked on his errand, but didn’t get very far. As he rounded the corner of the cemetery beside his house, men in black masks jumped out of the police car and shoved him into the vehicle.

He was handcuffed and hauled off for interrogation. For the following year, he was confined to jail cells and psychiatric wards, prevented from talking to outsiders and primed for a nonpublic trial.

The year was 2001.

Although Hučín’s case involves government practices reminiscent of the totalitarian regime, the suspicious circumstances of his arrest and subsequent prosecution are chillingly contemporary, and involve some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians. While his adversaries in the police, Parliament and the judiciary call him a rogue criminal and a terrorist, Hučín’s testimony paints a different portrait — one of a man who simply knows too much.
In local media, Hučín, a candidate in this fall’s Senate election, is best known for his controversial trial and his decade-long work in BIS, the national counterintelligence agency. His story, however, starts much earlier.

In 1971, Hučín, who was then 17 years old, stepped into a restaurant in his hometown of Přerov, north Moravia, to buy a soda. Jaded by the repressive atmosphere that followed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, he was the picture of rebellion against the communist establishment — long hair, defiant scowl, Led Zeppelin T-shirt.

Unfortunately for him, the restaurant at which he planned to purchase a Kofola happened to be the same venue at which a score of venerated, high-ranking communists were downing vodka in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ).
Subversive activities

What followed would end up shaping Hučín’s lifelong anti-communist resolve. The mob of decorated party members allegedly dragged him by his hair to the nearby toilets, ripped out most of his hair, and beat him until he lost consciousness.

“To have something like this happen to you at the hands of people who are being presented as the cream of communist society … something inside you breaks,” he says. After that moment, Hučín was a sworn enemy of the regime. At first, his acts of resistance were relatively innocuous: For example, he flooded Přerov with thousands of “Down with the Soviet dictatorship” fliers using meteorological balloons.

Between 1973 and ’76, Hučín’s subversive activity escalated. Using small time bombs, he destroyed various displays of communist propaganda, sabotaged a Soviet freight train and released teargas at an event commemorating the communist revolution.

“I was always extremely careful to do these things so that no citizen was ever harmed,” he stresses. “I couldn’t afford risking that.”

But, even as he and his small group of accomplices expanded their activities, the tentacles of the StB — the secret police in communist Czechoslovakia — closed in.
In the summer of 1976, left-leaning American singer Dean Read was scheduled to give a concert at a stadium in Přerov — an event Hučín wanted to disrupt by releasing teargas. Instead, he was arrested by the StB, based on information given to them by Hučín’s own associates.
“They told the StB that I was preparing an armed offensive against the regime, that I was gathering arms,” he says. “They sandwiched the truth between false accusations to get a result that sounded believable.”

Convinced that Hučín posed a serious terrorist threat, the StB employed beat him, interrogated him and injected him with drugs to try to obtain a confession. But, he says, they never got one. After eight months of confinement, Hučín was released on parole due to lack of evidence.
Although he was now under heavy surveillance, he continued to carry out subversive antics. Through his own network of collaborators, Hučín staged an attack against Antonín Mikeš, a particularly zealous StB agent.

Because the StB was watching him constantly, Hučín trained one of his disciples, Ladislav Brázda, to detonate a small bomb outside Mikeš’s cottage.

“He extended a 20-meter wire, hid behind the corner and ignited the fuse,” says Hučín. “The door burst into pieces. Mikeš’s car was also damaged.”

The StB arrested Hučín and his associate immediately after the attack.

“Unfortunately, Brázda buckled after the first night of intensive interrogation,” he says. “He told them everything.”

This time, Hučín was sentenced to two and a half years, and transported to the notorious Minkovice correctional facility in north Bohemia, which he says was at times “reminiscent of hell.”

The other side of the barricade

In 1986, after his release from Minkovice, Hučín signed Charter 77, a dissident document criticizing the communist regime. But joining the ranks of dignitary signatories including Václav Havel and Petr Uhl only led to further disillusionment.

“The StB installed its own agents in the [Charter 77 movement] ... they knew that these dissidents did not have it in their power to harm them,” he says. “Out of every 30 people that attended [Charter 77] meetings at my house, I can say without a qualm that at least three of them were StB agents.”

As communist governments throughout the Soviet bloc crumbled, the StB began sketching out a nonviolent, “velvet” revolution, he says.

“If there was a real revolution, it could have turned bloody. That is why the StB scripted things the way it did, and Charter 77 was something they could use to their advantage. The chartists’ motto ‘We’re not like them’ was their savior — through their indecisiveness, the chartists created a chaotic environment, which allowed the pragmatic communists to destroy evidence and save their careers.” At the end of 1989, the all-powerful StB was officially dissolved. And as the citizenry celebrated the Velvet Revolution, the StB scrambled to destroy a plethora of incriminating documents, some of which Hučín says he salvaged.

“I managed to retrieve a good amount of files. They’re a bit burnt on the sides, but they contain information about judges, state attorneys, StB agents and other members of the criminal regime’s administration.”

In 1991, the Confederation of Political Prisoners (KPV) recommended Hučín for a post at the Olomouc bureau of FBIS (now BIS), the democratic nation’s fledgling intelligence agency. Although the government required BIS employees to have negative lustration certificates proving they never collaborated with the communist regime, many of them had apparently slipped through the crevices, he says.

“When I first started at FBIS, I was surprised to learn that it was full of StB agents. At the time, I was too low-ranking to do anything about it, although I did what I could.”

Despite frequent confrontations with the leadership, which he says was controlled by former StB agents, Hučín says he soon became one of BIS’s most productive operatives. Focusing on left-wing extremism, he monitored a zealous circle of Moravian communists with ties to members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) and international extremist groups.
“In a city like Prague, left-wing extremism may seem like a marginal problem, but, in north Moravia, where there is high unemployment and a strained social situation, it is still a real threat,” Hučín says.

Process of elimination

As Hučín focused on left-wing extremism, tensions in BIS mounted. “Much of my activity pointed to the fact that lustration certificates were being manipulated. They were given to people who didn’t have clean records, and the people who administered them were in no way trustworthy,” he says. “Suddenly, I began to have all sorts of complications.”

The major blow, he says, came in 1998, when the Civic Democrat (ODS)-led government was replaced by the more left-leaning Social Democrats (ČSSD). Around the same time, a series of mysterious bombs began exploding in Olomouc and Přerov. According to Hučín, these bombings were the beginning of the government conspiracy against him.

“With the blessing of the ČSSD, the KSČM began orchestrating a plan for my elimination,” he says. “In order for the public to buy it, they needed to make me look like a terrorist.”
As the government built the case against him, Hučín says he was systematically prevented from engaging in any real intelligence gathering.

Meanwhile, the bombing attacks raged on. Between 1997 and 2001, a total of six bombs exploded in the Přerov and Olomouc area. As a member of the BIS team “Explosion,” which was responsible for investigating the bombings, Hučín began to suspect that the attacks were the work of left-wing extremists. However, in 2000, Shadow Interior Minister František Bublan (who was then the director of BIS) suddenly removed him from the case.

“It was immediately after I filed a report stating that the left-wing organizations behind the bombings had links to the KSČM,” Hučín says.

Meanwhile, information that Hučín himself was behind the attacks began appearing in local media. According to Hučín, it was a telltale sign that the conspirators were closing in on him.
In February 2001, police arrested Hučín and searched his house, allegedly looking for evidence linking him to the bombing attacks. “They were actually looking for the old StB files I had in my possession,” Hučín says.

Although his alleged involvement in the bombings was the initial premise for his arrest, Hučín was never charged with any crime related to the terrorist attacks. Instead, he was gradually charged with seven crimes, including insubordination, unauthorized handling of private documents, and abusing public office.

In the clear

After one year of imprisonment — part of which he spent at a psychiatric ward — the Constitutional Court deemed the confinement illegal, and Hučín was released.
What followed was a controversial trial that lasted five years.
Alleging that the Hučín case involved classified information regarding national security, the regional court in Přerov insisted that the court proceedings not be public.

“The state authorities had a vested interest in keeping my trial secret,” Hučín says. “Trust me, the only people that were threatened by a public trial were the people responsible for my prosecution.” Powerful lobbies like the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor called for a fair trial, and Hučín’s case was finally made public in 2005. In the following two years, he was acquitted of all charges by both the Přerov District Court and the Olomouc Regional Court.

With the help of high-ranking politicians like Senator Jaromír Štětina, Hučín continues to wage war against his adversaries, who he says remain in top government and judicial posts.
Last November, Štětina presented the Parliament committee monitoring BIS activity with a series of documents proving BIS manipulated the police investigation in the Hučín case for political reasons — an act that has since met with resistance from both the committee membership and BIS, which continues to deny the allegations.

“BIS did not commit any errors in [Hučín’s] case,” says Michal Zachystal, the state attorney who handled Štětina’s allegations. “If its members were involved in the case, it was in accordance with the law.”

Meanwhile, Hučín plans to run in the Senate elections this fall.

“If I’m elected, I don’t think I would remain in office for the full term, as I would inevitably end up in conflicts, but it would give me the chance to rid the state administration of these relics of the old communist apparatus,” he says. “Right now, we are preparing for a counterattack, and it’s going to make certain people hot under the collar. Watch and see what happens.”

Markéta Hulpachová can be reached at