World News

Czech Communist hardliner jailed for abuse of power dies in Prague

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Communist hardliner Miroslav Stepan, one of the few top Communist leaders convicted for abuse of power after the Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, died on Sunday aged 68, local media reported.

Stepan, former head of the Communist Party chapter in Prague, went to prison in 1990 for ordering the brutal suppression of two pro-democracy demonstrations leading up to the Velvet Revolution that toppled Communist power in late 1989.

He was sentenced to a four-year term for ordering the use of water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators in October 1988 and January 1989, when dissident Vaclav Havel - who was elected president later that year - was among those arrested.

His term was reduced to two-and-a-half years on appeal and Stepan walked free in 1991 after serving half that sentence. In 1995, he launched a new party dedicated to reviving the hardline Communism that he had championed during the Soviet era.

Stepan was one of the first Eastern European Communists to be tried by the new governments that replaced them.

Milos Jakes, the Communist Party chief swept from power in 1989, was later put on trial for treason for supporting the Soviet invasion of then-Czechoslovakia in 1968, but eventually acquitted.

The pattern was repeated across the former Soviet bloc as the new governments sought to make Communist leaders pay for four decades of dictatorship but could not convict them.

East German Communist leader Erich Honecker was tried for ordering the shooting of fleeing refugees at the Berlin Wall, but freed after two months because of his failing health.

However, his successor Egon Krenz was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for manslaughter, and served nearly four, also for his role in the killing of East Germans trying to flee to the West.

Poland’s former military strongman, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was to be tried for the shootings of protesters by security forces in 1970, but was spared due to poor health.

Former Bulgarian president Todor Zhivkov was convicted of embezzling public funds but kept under house arrest, also because of weak health, until his conviction was overturned.

Across the region, it was mostly low-level secret police officers or local party officials who ended up spending time in jail for offences under Communism.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Tom Heneghan