In memoriam: Petr Uhl, co-founder of Charter 77, human rights activist, journalist and politician

Petr Uhl was born in Prague in October 1941, two years after the start of World War II and four years after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. His father was a leftist, and in his youth Uhl himself became a committed Marxist but refused to join the Communist Party.

By the late 1960s he had joined another left-wing movement, and within months of the crushing of the Soviet invasion, the Prague Spring reform movement had founded the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which sought to counter the “normalization” of the occupation.

Petr Uhl |  Photo: VONS

In an oral history interview for the Memory of the Nation Project, he recalled his arrest in December 1969 by the StB, the communist-era secret police, for sedition.

“We went from [being interrogated at] Ruzyne at our apartment, where they searched. My mother asked, ‘What did my son do?’ I was not charged yet, it was legally complicated, but I was listed as a suspect in the crime of sedition.

“Major Váňa said: ‘He is suspected of sedition.’ My mother said, ‘Sedition? Well, I also disagree with what is happening here. I’m outraged too. – She misunderstood the meaning of the word and said: “So, gentlemen, you should lock me up too”.

Petr Uhl will spend the next four years in prison. On the contrary, he emerged from the experience even more determined to reform the oppressive system.

At the end of 1976, he and his wife Anna Šabatová – who had herself spent three years in prison as a political prisoner – were expecting their second child. It was she, he recalls, who suggested a key strategy for the survival of the emerging Charter 77 movement.

Anna Sabatova |  Photo: Adam Kebrt, Czech Radio

“We were together in the attic, hanging up diapers to dry. My wife had read the Charter and said she found it pretty good – except that it needed not just one spokesperson but several.

“I said that we had chosen between Jan Patočka, Václav Černý or Jiří Hájek. She said: “But there should be three to distract the StB. A single person would be under a lot of pressure in isolation. And there should also be someone younger: Václav Havel’.

The Charter 77 human rights movement became the main platform for peaceful opposition to the communist government. Petr Uhl also helped found the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Prosecuted Persons (or VONS, by its Czech acronym).

For working to help politically persecuted activists, in May 1979 he was imprisoned again, this time for five years. In the same oral history interview for the Memory of the Nation Project, he recalled the despair he felt at not being able to help Charter 77 and VONS complete their work.

“I was in police custody in Ruzyně and only went out for half an hour a day. There was a cabin without a roof in the fresh air, maybe 3×5 meters wide. The walls were concrete, but the doors were wooden. Once, in June, I saw that someone had scribbled a message on the door that said “12 new members have joined VONS”.

Petr Uhl in 1989 |  Photo: Czech Television

“I believed it and felt a lot better. We all clung to the hope that Charter would go on, that the sacrifice – because imprisonment is a certain sacrifice, also knowing that you might end up there – that it meant something. That it was not for nothing. It was the most critical period of the Charter, but I [behind bars] I haven’t experienced it personally.

After his release from prison in 1984, Petr Uhl worked as a boiler firer but continued to publish samizdat and Charter 77 news, and joined VIA, a Soviet bloc dissident group trying to provide independent news.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he became a deputy and director of the national news agency CTK. He was also later a government envoy for human rights. He is survived by his wife Anna Šabatová, the country’s first human rights ombudsman, and three children.