Charter 77 (Charta 77 in Czech and in Slovak) was an informal civic initiative in communist Czechoslovakia from 1976 to 1992, named after the document Charter 77 from January 1977. Founding members and architects were Jiří Němec, Václav Benda, Ladislav Hejdánek, Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, Martin Palouš, and Pavel Kohout. Spreading the text of the document was considered a political crime by the communist regime. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, many of its members played important roles in Czech and Slovak politics.
Founding and political aims
Motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, the text of Charter 77 was prepared in 1976. In December 1976, the first signatures were collected. The charter was published on 6 January 1977, along with the names of the first 242 signatories, which represented various occupations, political viewpoints, and religions. Although Václav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and Pavel Landovský were detained while trying to bring the charter to the Federal Assembly and the Czechoslovak government and the original document was confiscated, copies circulated as samizdat and on 7 January were published in several western newspapers (including Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Times and New York Times) and transmitted to Czechoslovakia by Czechoslovak-banned radio broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.
Charter 77 criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed, including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia, the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Basket III of the Helsinki Accords), and 1966 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 was harsh. The official press described the manifesto as "an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic, abusive piece of writing," and individual signatories were variously described as "traitors and renegades," "a loyal servant and agent of imperialism," "a bankrupt politician," and "an international adventurer." As it was considered to be an illegal document, the full text of Charter 77 was never published in the official press. However an official group of artists and writers was mobilized into an "anti-charter" movement which included Czechoslovakia's foremost singer Karel Gott as well as prominent comedic writer Jan Werich who later claimed he had no idea of what he was doing whilst signing the anti-charter.
Several means of retaliation were used against the signatories, 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, Czech: 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 Prosecuted (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 during the 1980s. Despite unrelenting harassment and arrests, however, the groups continued to issue reports on the government's violations of human rights. Until the Velvet Revolution, Charter 77 had approximately 1,900 signatories.
Under the dictatorship, the influence of Charter 77 remained limited and only 1,065 people ever signed the document. It didn't reach wide groups of people and most of its members were from Prague. The majority of Czechoslovak citizens knew of the organization only because of the government's campaign against it.
In the late 1980s, as the Eastern Bloc regimes weakened, members of Charter 77 saw their opportunity and became more involved in organizing 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 dictatorship 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 diplomacy or knowledge of capitalism) 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 organization was officially dissolved.
In 1984 Charter 77 was awarded the first Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award.