Charter 77

Charter 77

Charter 77 (Charta 77 in Czech and in Slovak) was an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia from 1977 to 1992, named after the document Charter 77 from January 1977. Founding members and architects were Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, and Pavel Kohout. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, many of its members played important roles in Czech and Slovak politics.

Founding and political aims

The most prominent opposition to the process of normalization has been the movement known as Charter 77. The movement took its name from the title of a document initially circulated within Czechoslovakia in January 1977. Originally appearing as a manifesto in a West German newspaper and signed by 243 Czechoslovak citizens representing various occupations, political viewpoints, and religions, the document by the mid-1980s had been signed by 1,200 people. Motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, Charter 77 criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed, including the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Basket III of the Helsinki Accords), and United Nations covenants on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights. The document also described the signatories as a "loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world." It emphasized that Charter 77 is not an organization, has no statutes or permanent organs, and "does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity." This final stipulation was a careful effort to stay within the bounds of Czechoslovak law, which made organized opposition illegal.

After 30 years, many of those from both Czechoslovakia and the UK who were personally involved in the Charter 77 movement and helped to gain international support and to draw attention to the petition gathered on 29 March 2007 at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London, to look back and share their experience and memories of one of the little known but most significant events of modern European history.

Reaction of the government

The government's reaction to the appearance of Charter 77, which circulated in samizdat form within Czechoslovakia and was published in full in various foreign newspapers, was harsh. The official press described the manifesto as "an antistate, antisocialist, and demagogic, abusive piece of writing," and individual signers were variously described as "traitors and renegades," "a loyal servant and agent of imperialism," "a bankrupt politician," and "an international adventurer." Several means of retaliation were used against the signers, including dismissal from work, denial of educational opportunities for their children, suspension of drivers' licenses, forced exile, loss of citizenship, and detention, trial, and imprisonment. Many members were forced to collaborate with the communist secret service (the StB, Státní bezpečnost).

The treatment of Charter 77 signatories prompted the creation in April 1978 of a support group, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných - VONS), to publicize the fate of those associated with the charter. In October 1979 six leaders of this support group, including Václav Havel, were tried for subversion and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years.

Repression of Charter 77 and VONS members continued in the 1980s. Despite unrelenting harassment and arrests, however, the groups continued to issue reports on the government's violations of human rights.

Influence

During communist rule, the influence of Charter 77 remained limited. It didn't reach wide groups of people and most of its members were from Prague. The majority of Czechoslovak citizens knew of the organisation only because of the government's campaign against it.

At the end of the 1980s, as the Eastern Bloc communist regimes weakened, members of Charter 77 saw their opportunity and became more involved in organising opposition against the regime in power. During the days of the Velvet Revolution, members of the group negotiated the smooth transfer of political power from communist party rule to democracy. Many were elevated into high positions in the government (e.g. Václav Havel became the President of Czechoslovakia) but since most had no experience in active politics (such as skills in leading a country or knowledge of a free market economy) they met with mixed success.

Charter 77 included people who had a wide range of opinions and, after reaching their common goal, the group's presence faded. An attempt to make the group the focal point of an all-encompassing political party (the Civic Forum) failed and in 1992 the organisation was officially dissolved.

See also

Charter 88 - a British movement inspired in part by Charter 77.

Charter 97 - a Belarus movement inspired in part by Charter 77.

External links

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