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Charter 77

The Charter 77 (Charta 77 in Czech and in Slovak) was an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia from 1977 to 1992, named after the anti-Communist document Charter 77 from January 1977. One of its representatives was Vaclav Havel. It played an important role in the late 1980s, when the Communism was approaching its end in Czechoslovakia.

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. 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 makes organized opposition illegal.

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.

The treatment of the signers of Charter 77 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 Vaclav 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 discrimination and arrests, however, the groups continued to issue reports on the government's violations of human rights. The group played an important role in the late 1980s, when the Communism was approaching its end in Czechoslovakia.