Jehovah's Witnesses win compensation for suffering in the 1950s

07-08-2003

Two Jehovah's Witnesses have been granted compensation worth several hundred Euros for appalling hardship they faced in Czechoslovakia's Stalinist prisons in the early1950s. The hard line authorities had jailed the men as part of a huge clampdown on religious organizations at the height of the communist purges. What makes this case unusual is that the men are neither Czech nor Slovak. Today they are both German citizens. David Vaughan has the story.

The Jehovah's Witnesses were never a large religious minority in Czechoslovakia, but on the night of the 4th February 1952 over a hundred were rounded up and jailed, in an attempt to wipe out the congregation altogether. Some spent nearly twenty years in prison. Among them were two Czechoslovak citizens of German nationality - Sudeten Germans who had been allowed to remain in the country after the war - Johann Liebsch and Horst Halse. After over two years in prison, they were released and subsequently both emigrated to Germany.

The two men have been granted a one-off compensation payment on the basis of a Czech government decision taken six years ago to compensate all prisoners who languished on the basis of illegal convictions in Czechoslovakia's communist jails for over a year, regardless of where they live today. There have been other similar cases, including a Jehovah's Witness now living in Canada, Josef Vavra, who spent ten years in prison for refusing to serve in the army.

But the fact that the two men are Sudeten Germans makes this particular case special. Successive Czech governments have rejected the principle of compensating Czechoslovakia's German minority for suffering they faced after the war. But this week the government agreed that some Germans who were not among the nearly 3 million expelled after the war and suffered discrimination because they were German should have the right to compensation. The case of Johann Liebsch and Horst Halse is not directly connected with this decision - the men have received compensation because of suffering for their beliefs, not for their nationality - but their case does break a long-held taboo concerning compensation for Sudeten Germans.

Earlier I spoke to the lawyer representing the two men, Lubomir Muller. Dr Muller is himself a Jehovah's Witness and spent time behind bars under the communist regime. I asked him about the fate of the church following the arrests of February 1952.

Lubomir Muller: "More than one hundred Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested during that night and then a lot of court cases were held in 1953 and 1954. The punishment was up to eighteen years in prison."

I was looking at the cases that had gone through the courts at that time and the language used against them was really quite vicious, wasn't it. There was talk that they were "poisoned by the ideas of Western imperialist agents". Why did the regime hate the Jehovah's Witnesses so much?

Lubomir Muller: "The totalitarian regime hated Jehovah's Witnesses because they refused to serve in the communist army and they also refused to support the Communist Party. "

This was during the worst period of Stalinism. What happened later? In the 1960s there was a kind of warming of the regime and even in the period of "normalization" in the 1970s and 80s things weren't as bad as in the 50s. Was there some degree of tolerance of Jehovah's Witnesses in Czechoslovakia?

Lubomir Muller: "Most Jehovah's Witnesses were released on the basis of a big amnesty in 1960. However, later Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned too, especially because the military question continued up to 1990. In March 1990 a new law was accepted by the parliament of the Czechoslovak Republic and the right to refuse military service for religious reasons was accepted by the parliament."

Today would you say that Jehovah's Witnesses are tolerated as much as any other smaller church organizations in the Czech Republic?

Lubomir Muller: "Yes. Now the Jehovah's Witnesses are among 21 churches and religious societies registered according to the new law no.3 of 2002."

07-08-2003