Ex-Party Boss in Prague Given 4-Year Jail Term

From Associated Press

Prague's former Communist Party boss was found guilty Monday of abuse of power and sentenced to four years in jail in the first conviction of a member of the country's former hard-line leadership.

The official, Miroslav Stepan, had ordered use of water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators in Prague in the autumn of 1988. A year later, a popular uprising toppled the authoritarian Communist government.

Dozens of Czechoslovaks crowded in front of the small room where the verdict was handed down, and some expressed satisfaction.

"That serves him right--that's exactly what he deserved," an elderly woman said.

Stepan appealed the verdict but is to remain in custody. No date was set for the appeal to be heard.

The court ruled that he had "unjustifiably" overstepped the bounds of his office when, as chairman of the Prague Defense Council, he ordered the action against the demonstrators on Oct. 28, 1988.

He was also accused of having demonstrators transported outside Prague in January, 1989, after they failed to disperse as ordered by police.

Stepan, 44, was arrested Dec. 23, 1989, less than a month after stepping down as Prague party boss. He was the first member of the country's Communist leadership to be brought to trial.

Five other former high-ranking officials, including Communist Party leader Milos Jakes and chief ideologue Vasil Bilak, were detained last month and accused of "serious criminal activity." But all were released within 48 hours.

Stepan, who joined the party's ruling Politburo in December, 1987, had a reputation as a ruthless hard-liner. He was instrumental in suppressing a wave of street protests in Prague beginning in August, 1988.

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