Prague & the perils of jazz

Roth, Kenneth

351 PRAGUE & THE PERILS OF JAZZ WHEN SPONTANEITY GOES ON TRIAL KENNETH ROTH It seemed at first a patent blunder for the Czechoslovak authorities to direct their first major political trial of...

...Srp and company willingly accepted this advice and, in an unprecedented step, continued their activities as usual...
...In lawyerly fashion, Prusa contended that the lack of a reason frustrated any challenge to the ruling because there was no rationale to attack...
...Spurred on by Josef Prusa, its stubbornly independent lawyer, the Jazz Section appealed the banning decision in the courts, despite the lack of legal precedent for judicial review of an Interior Ministry decision...
...But the very fact of the prosecution, coupled with parallel signs of a crackdown on dissent in all forms, signals the resilience of more orthodox elements...
...The defendants' cultural work was commendable, but it requires a legal framework because social value must be regulated...
...In response, Srp described the Jazz Section as a "human and cultural organization" with apolitical goals...
...I don't know if I understand this work but its quality was high...
...We could not answer letters from an organization that did not exist," the Ministry official replied...
...Needless to say, the Czechoslovak courts failed to appreciate this argument...
...Skalnik...
...Inaugurated in 1971 as a branch of the officially approved Czechoslovak Union of Musicians, the Jazz Section began as a small group of citizens interested in listening to and promoting jazz...
...Other Jazz Section defendants did not go even this far in challenging the government's right to ban cultural organizations...
...Throughout this period, however, the Jazz Section carefully avoided enmeshing itself in dissident politics, keeping its distance from leading opposition organizations such as Charter 77 and VONS (the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted...
...The recent trial of five leaders of the Jazz Section which I attended on behalf of Helsinki Watch, the New Yorkbased human rights group was sure to provoke Western outrage at the persecution of such innocuous cultural activity...
...The authorities' relatively lenient approach to the trial permits hope for a more tolerant and open future...
...The defendants' main contention at the trial was that they lacked unlawful intent because they had relied on Prusa's advice that the banning order was invalid until the government responded to their appeals for a reason...
...I've read articles by Mr...
...Observers began wondering whether the trial would ever take place, as Communist party moderates seemed to be gaining the upper hand...
...Nonetheless, plagued by memories of the Prague Spring of 1968, when a flourish of political and artistic pluralism was dealt a crushing blow by the "fraternal assistance" of Soviet-led troops, the aging and deeply conservative Czechoslovak Communist leadership became alarmed at the energy and enthusiasm of the small cultural renaissance represented by the Jazz Section...
...As Father Maly observed, "the Jazz Section was a special case because it attracted the attention of the international press...
...Both the Prague Municipal Court and the Czechoslovak Supreme Court rejected the appeal summarily, again without so much as a word of explanation...
...Like other official clubs, the Jazz Section was permitted to publish a newsletter and an occasional pamphlet for distribution among its members without the need to submit to formal censorship...
...Nor, for that matter, did they challenge the government's right to license and restrict such activities as publishing books and organizing concerts...
...Accustomed to ruling by decree, the Interior Ministry had banned the Jazz Section without deigning to explain its action...
...Similarly, the prosecutor, Petr Snajdr, was a man of integrity who ordinarily handled straightforward apolitical crimes...
...Fueling this sense of dissension behind party doors was an increasingly public debate between Lubomir Strougal, the Czechoslovak prime minister, and Vasil Bilak, the party's chief of ideology...
...In an unprecedented liberal move, however, they invited three foreign journalists from Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and the Voice of America to attend the trial and observe all proceedings...
...He noted: "We never challenged the leading role of the Party...
...In a clever move, however, the Czechoslovak government used the trial to portray a reformist facade...
...Prusa then advised the Jazz Section leadership that it need not heed the banning order until appellate review had been completed...
...Auditoriums that has been used for Jazz Section concerts became suddenly and indefinitely booked...
...Predictably, no explanation was proffered...
...The prosecutor argued that the defendants had knowingly violated a valid order and that it was irrelevant whether they had agreed with its dictates...
...The trial was repeatedly scheduled and postponed...
...In September 1985, the police searched the homes of Srp, Vladimir Kouril, the deputy chairman of the Jazz Section, and Josef Skalnik, its secretary and graphic designer...
...353 In an extraordinary opinion and verdict, the judge praised the defendants for their cultural work but made clear that, even in the era of glasnost, spontaneous activity is not tolerated in Czechoslovakia: We considered that the defendants took their activities seriously...
...We always abided closely by the regulations...
...Since guilty verdicts seemed inevitable regardless of which government faction prevailed, the sole suspense concerned the length of the sentences to be imposed...
...During the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the Jazz Section began to expand dramatically...
...That Westerners now even discuss the possibility of an opening in Czechoslovakia demonstrates the shrewdness of the authorities' approach to the Jazz Section trial...
...The conduct of the trial revealed a similar confusion on the part of the authorities...
...Oblivious to the contradiction, the official retorted: "If you had consented to liquidation, of course we could have met...
...In a Kafkaesque exchange, Srp demanded, "Why did the Liquidation Committee not answer the letters we were sending...
...The readership of the Jazz Section newsletter also skyrocketed to an estimated 70,000, making it the most widely read uncensored publication in the country...
...Rather, the two-hundred-odd would-be observers in attendance other foreign journalists, human-rights activists, jazz enthusiasts, political sympathizers, and Western diplomats were permitted to stand in the corridor outside the courtroom, and even to clap and cheer as the defendants entered or exited the courtroom...
...This was a far cry from, for example, the VONS trial in 1979, when on the 352: first day of trial thirty sympathizers were arrested and hustled off to jail...
...351 PRAGUE & THE PERILS OF JAZZ WHEN SPONTANEITY GOES ON TRIAL KENNETH ROTH It seemed at first a patent blunder for the Czechoslovak authorities to direct their first major political trial of the decade against a group of jazz enthusiasts...
...But only sixteen months...
...Inside the courtroom, however, this political insight gave way to haggling over accounting records and appellate procedure...
...The sentences were far more lenient than the maximum eight-year prison terms that could have been imposed...
...But, almost in spite of themselves, some supporters admitted to relief even jubilance...
...In these circumstances, it remains too early to say whether the Jazz Section trial is trend-setting or anomalous...
...Moreover, to protect themselves from official reprisals, Jazz Section leaders sought international attention: they secured membership in the International Jazz Federation, a branch of the Music Department of UNESCO, and traveled to Budapest to plead their cause before the Helsinki follow-up Forum on European Culture...
...With this reaffirmation of cultural orthodoxy, the judge imposed a sixteen-month prison term on Srp and a ten-month prison term on Kouril, although both received credit for the six months already spent in jail awaiting trial...
...For several years, Jazz Section members used this KENNETH ROTH is an attorney who went to Prague on behalf of Helsinki Watch, a human rights organization...
...The prosecutor in the case evoked memories of the 1950s by accusing Motl of being a "class enemy...
...Jaroslav Niklas, a prosecution witness from the Ministry of Culture, tried to turn the tables by attributing the lack of explanation to the defendants' failure to comply with the elaborate procedures for "liquidating" their organization...
...The bulk of Srp's argument was devoted to the lack of reasons given for the banning decision...
...Featuring a publication devoid of newspeak and led by its fiery chairman, Karel Srp, the Section grew from a small, dedicated core to a substantial movement of 7,000 far larger, for example, than Charter 77, the well-known opposition group, which has never attracted more than 1,500 signatories...
...To justify excluding additional observers, they selected a tiny courtroom within Prague's vast principal courthouse and apparently even removed one of the four benches usually in place for spectators...
...Not surprisingly, that appeal was never answered...
...We never advocated terrorism or fascism...
...The Czechoslovak Penal Code is well stocked with expansive political crimes such as "subversion" or "incitement" that are broad enough to embrace virtually any opposition activity...
...Skalnik, Hunat, and Krivanek received suspended prison terms and were placed on probation...
...Officials from the Ministry of Culture began visiting printing shops to discourage the publication of Jazz Section materials...
...A remark by Father Vaclav Maly, an opposition priest whose license to practice has been revoked, reflected the prevailing mood: "Only sixteen months...
...By exploiting the attention drawn to the prospect of jailing jazz enthusiasts, the Czechoslovak authorities snatched fortune from folly by creating a forum for the display of their new-found liberality...
...They were experts in their professions...
...Similarly, in the coming weeks, Jan Dus, a Protestant pastor, will stand trial for slander, with a possible three- to ten-year prison term, for writing an open letter to Husak accusing the police of using a search of his apartment as a pretext to frame an opposition cohort...
...However, perhaps because of the difficulty of proving that a group of jazz enthusiasts represented a significant political threat, the authorities charged them with the superficially apolitical crime of engaging in an "unauthorized business enterprise...
...I know it's a lot...
...This official conflict exerted parallel contradictory influences on the fate of the Jazz Section defendants...
...Strougal had embraced Gorbachev's program, even using the word "reform," with its evocation of the Prague Spring-, rather than the preferred Czechoslovak term "revolutionary change...
...By not calling me, the authorities are breaking the rules that they must prove guilt or innocence in a full and complete fashion...
...Thus began a series of official steps to limit the Jazz Section membership, regulate its concerts, and restrict its publishing activities to the original jazz-oriented purpose of the club...
...Accordingly, Prusa maintained, the banning order had no force...
...The Union of Musicians was pressured to dissolve this troublesome jazz wing, and, when the union resisted, the Interior Ministry itself banned not only the Jazz Section but also the entire union...
...Would you have met with me" Srp implored...
...Rather than accept dissolution, however, as had various reformist organizations such as the Writers' Union and the Scientific Union after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, Srp and his cohorts resisted...
...Kouril and I've seen the artwork of Mr...
...Thus, in a show of resolve, the authorities finally set the trial for last March 10...
...All but Srp and Kouril were released from jail...
...In the corridor outside, the supporters reacted to the verdicts with outrage, bemoaning the demise of the Jazz Section, at least in its above-ground incarnation...
...Frantisek Adamek, a Catholic priest, is awaiting appellate review of his two-year prison term for distributing samizdat literature...
...Parallel to these legal efforts, the Jazz Section wrote letters on 130 occasions, by Srp's count to the Interior and Cultural Ministries seeking a reason for the banning...
...When pressed by the prosecutor about the outright defiance of the banning order, he explained: "It was an intuitive, spontaneous decision...
...Such seeming resolve, an evident victory for hardliners in the government, was soon replaced by official equivocation...
...They trusted me...
...The charges against the Jazz Section reflected a similar calculated balance...
...Prusa then appealed to the Czechoslovak constitutional court, which exists in the law books but has never been established in fact...
...Even in the most civilized societies," he argued, "you cannot conduct such activities . . . when they are not authorized...
...Nonetheless, the authorities were unable to reject out of hand the defendants' argument that reasons should have been given for the banning decision...
...But the authorities could not bring themselves to sponsor a genuinely public trial...
...Instead, the defendants adhered to Prusa's legalistic approach by condemning the failure to provide reasons for the banning decision...
...However, with another nod to Gorbachev, the authorities refrained from relegating the remaining observers to the street not a small concession in light of the Siberian winds that linger in Prague in early March...
...While each defendant was permitted to advance this argument personally, the main advocate of the position Prusa himself ¦ was never permitted to enter the courtroom...
...T o the surprise of many Western observers, the Jazz Section defendants never used the trial to attack this apolitical facade...
...Bilak, on the other hand, had urged that, because of the "special circumstances" in Czechoslovakia a reference to the kind of pent-up pluralist yearnings that had triggered the 1968 invasion Soviet innovations should be applied cautiously...
...Thus, only the week before, in a case that attracted no attention at the time, an appellate court in Prague upheld a three-year prison term for Ervin Motl, who had been singled out for the heinous crimes of publicly listening to the Voice of America, maintaining contacts with Czechoslovak e'migre's, and discussing poor working conditions with his fellow workers...
...Although this less confrontational approach minimized the risk of long prison terms, it also permitted the trial to focus on the technicalities of business regulation rather than the spontaneous cultural activity that in fact had spawned the prosecution...
...With the seventy-four-year-old party leader Gustav Husak fading into the background in seeming contemplation of retirement, Strougal and Bilak had become the principal advocates for competing positions on how to respond to Gorbachev's reform policy, known as glasnost...
...Finally, in the closest he ever came to challenging the substance of the banning order, Srp made veiled reference to the fundamental freedoms that Czechoslovakia had endorsed as a signatory to the Helsinki Final Act: "It was not our intention to violate the laws of this country, not even those signed in 1975 in Helsinki...
...Finally, in September 1986, the police arrested and jailed five leaders of the Jazz Section Srp, Kouril, Skalnick, Cestmir Hunat, and Tomas Krivanek together with the Section's landlord and its accountant...
...At the same time, Jazz Section publications began to explore artistic and cultural subjects well outside the field of jazz, by issuing such banned works as novelist Bohumil Hrabel's / Served the King of England and poet Jaroslav Seifert's speech accepting in absentia the Nobel Prize for Literature...
...For example, in a reflection of the naive spontaneity that seemed to lie behind the actions of many Jazz Section members, Kouril simply stated, "I feel not guilty . . . None of us joined the Jazz Section to become unofficial...
...Concurrently with the Jazz Section trial, the government showed a less tolerant side in a series of less visible prosecutions of political offenders...
...Despite their respectful demeanor, however, the judge and prosecutor largely prevented the defendants from presenting their principal defense...
...Pacing anxiously outside, Prusa said that he would have accepted full responsibility for the Jazz Section's defiance of the banning order: "My friends knew nothing about the law...
...Unamused by this resistance to its banning order, the Interior Ministry took ever more draconian measures...
...The contradictions revealed by the trial reflect the deep ambivalence within official circles in Prague about how to respond to the movement for reform led by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev...
...The judge selected to preside over the trial, Vladimir Striborik, was an apparent moderate, having granted suspended sentences in five lesser political cases in 1986...
...We could hardly believe in the 1980s there could be anyone who would want to ban jazz music...
...The victory of the Gorbachevian faction is by no means assured, however...
...and, in a case of extreme concern to Czechoslovak opposition figures, Petr Pospichal, a charismatic young activist from Brno, faces prosecution for his work on behalf of Charter 77 and VONS, including distributing underground literature, corresponding with e'migre circles, and, most serious, maintaining contacts with Solidarity figures in Poland...
...Whether this "reformist trend" is real or mere window-dressing should be judged by whether the relatively unknown targets of ongoing and future prosecutions reap the benefits of what so far is only a moment of partial tolerance...
...The basis for Prusa's appeal was compellingly simple...
...He concluded by recommending prison terms of from two to four years for all defendants...
...The authorities were content to have the musical energies of their youth channelled in such an apparently apolitical direction and away from the perceived dangers of rock-and-roll...
...Both men maintained a courteous and professional air throughout the trial...
...Pavel Wonka, imprisoned for ten months while awaiting trial, faces charges of running as an independent candidate in the May 1986 parliamentary election...
...privilege sparingly, listening to and writing a'bout the likes of Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker...
...In the only visible use of force during the trial, a handcuffed Srp and Kouril, resisting slightly," were pulled through the chanting crowd by four uniformed escorts...
...But then, lest those present feel too welcome, the authorities ostentatiously videotaped everyone present, an implicit threat of future reprisals...
...The authorities also openly commenced a criminal investigation of the Jazz Section leadership, summoning over a thousand witnesses, mostly Jazz Section members...
...Outside the courtroom, Vaclav Havel, the renowned playwright and essayist, observed: "The Jazz Section represents a model of behavior that is dangerous for a centralized power...
...They are not concerned with truth but with politics...
...If everyone acted as they did it would be the end of the totalitarian system...
...Only time, and continued Western attention, will tell...

Vol. 114 • June 1987 • No. 11


 
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