Czechoslovak communist interior minister to stand trial in landmark case

Czechoslovak communist interior minister to stand trial in landmark case
Behind the fence there was a "forbidden zone" of up to 2km where civilians could not live. / Wikipedia Commons
By Albin Sybera April 25, 2023

Former Czechoslovak Minister of Interior Vratislav Vajnar is being put on trial for the killing of three people who attempted to cross the country's heavily guarded border in the late 1980s, in one of the very few cases where a top official in the communist regime has faced justice.

Prague 1 court will hold its opening session on April 25 into the alleged offences of Vajnar, who held the interior ministry post in the then Czechoslovak federation from 1983-1988.

Vajnar is accused of being co-responsible for the death of three persons, injuries to another four and immediate danger to another person's life, who tried to leave the then Czechoslovakia across the border fence. Two of the killed persons were German citizens.

The lawyer representing families of the victims, Lubomir Muller, said “it is the first case” in the country’s history “brought to court”.

Then-Secretary General of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Milos Jakes and former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal were some of the most prominent communist-era representatives prosecuted after the regime’s fall in 1989, but their death ended those proceedings. Other cases have been unable to proceed because of the health of the accused.

The 93-year-old Vajnar is accused of overseeing the violence at the border. The case was described as examining “the intent to cause serious harm to another person” and “abusing that person’s distress,” and “failing to abide by duties” stemming from his position. As a minister of interior, Vajnar authorised the use of weapons by the border guards.

Vajnar was supposed to abide by international agreements, which Czechoslovakia observed since 1976, the indictment argues. In an earlier development, the Constitutional Court turned down Vajnar’s mental report assessing him as unfit to stand trial. The report was compiled by examiners with past in the Communist Party and the state bodies before 1989, including the military. 

Vajnar faces a conditional prison term of two years and a financial penalty of CZK100.000 (€4260), Czech online news outlet reported.  

“We wanted to see the contemporary courts pass a ruling that this was lawlessness. That it was a crime already when it took place,” director of the Platform of European Memory and former Green Party politician Neela Winkelmannova was quoted as saying by

“It is primarily important that the judiciary passes the guilty ruling. It is of secondary importance what happens to these people,” Winkelmannova added.

The court hearings with Vajnar are scheduled to last until May 24.  It is unclear whether Vajnar will attend the court hearings.