PRAGUE — The characters had been carefully chosen, the testimony rehearsed in advance, the verdict a foregone conclusion.
In the city of writer Franz Kafka, the trial of AP Prague correspondent William N. Oatis had all the elements of Kafkaesque absurdity. And at the beginning of the Cold War, even the date of the ruling seemed cooked up for show: July 4.
While the 1951 proceedings may have been all farce, the sentence for the American journalist was real: 10 years in a communist prison on trumped-up espionage charges.
The trial named the “O” case by Czechoslovak authorities gave Oatis first-hand experience of what it was like to be considered an enemy of the newly established Soviet-led empire.
Now, the discovery of two audio tapes in the Czech capital offers unique new insight into the trial. No other audio record from the three-day trial has been found.
The tapes record 29 minutes of fragments from the first two days of the trial that include Oatis’ statements, but not the testimony of three Czech AP colleagues who were sentenced with him. Experts say it is not clear why the trial was recorded and preserved in such a way.
“Do you feel guilty?” a judge asked through an interpreter at one point.
“Yes,” Oatis immediately replied in English.
“That means that you committed espionage on the territory of the Czechoslovak republic?”
“Yes, I did.”
Oatis did not hesitate to plead guilty, even though historians have established that he did nothing more than his reporting job since arriving in Prague in June 1950.
Facing the machinery of the secret police known as the StB, he had no chance to escape an unfair verdict. He was not alone. But of some 240,000 unlawfully jailed, Oatis was the only Western reporter.
Alena Simankova, an archivist at the National Archive in Prague who specializes in the Cold War, said authorities were making sure from the start that any trial followed the carefully planned course established at the pre-trial meetings — in which every detail, including the sentence, was meticulously worked out.
At the meetings, the representatives of the state court, state prosecution, Communist Party and secret police “worked on ‘casting’ — that is, they really used the drama vocabulary,” Simankova said. “The judges and prosecutors were especially selected very carefully.”
Simankova discovered the tapes “by accident” in the sprawling complex of the archive when she was going through files that arrived from the Justice Ministry about three years ago.
Among those supposed to contain only documents belonging to Deputy Interior Minister Karel Klos, a driving force behind major show trials in the 1950s, she found a paper parcel with two green cardboard boxes. Inside: the tapes.
“It was absolutely unexpected,” Simankova said.
By the time the communist persecution of perceived regime enemies peaked in the early 1950s, it was the prosecutor, not the judge, who was fully in charge of the show trials, Simankova said.
Underlining the importance of the “O” dossier, notorious prosecutor Josef Urvalek — who came to symbolize the unlawful trials of the post-1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia — was chosen to lead the case against Oatis.
The prosecutor’s master choreography reached its climax when Oatis spoke in front of a crowd of some 120 spectators who received tickets for the trial as a reward from Prague’s Communist Party branch.
“I’m sorry that I went in for espionage in this country,” Oatis is heard saying in the audio tape. “I did it only because I listened to the wrong kind of orders from abroad and came under the influence of the wrong kind of people here in Czechoslovakia. I hurt myself, I hurt my friends, I harmed the republic and helped its enemies. I harmed the cause of peace and helped the cause of war. I repeat that I’m sorry for all of this.”
Audio archivist Richard Mahel said the record was of a great value because “in a significant way it complements our knowledge of this trial, which is still far from complete.”
But above all, “it shows the political system that was here in its monstrosity,” Mahel said.
Slovak historian Slavomir Michalek, the author of “The Oatis Case,” said the journalist’s arrest came at a time when the number of Western reporters in Prague was in sharp decline and the communists “wanted to use the moment to show that they wouldn’t allow anyone to inform the rest of the world about what was going on here.”
“AP was interesting for them because it was an extremely important global agency whose reports had practically an immediate impact around the world,” said Michalek, who heads the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Michalek said a failure to recruit Oatis to become a communist spy influenced the decision to punish him.
After Oatis was arrested on April 23, 1951, secret police put him in isolation and deprived him of sleep and food. Historians agree that this psychological torture coerced his confession.
“Sooner or later, they broke everyone,” Michalek said.
After such treatment, he said, anyone “answered questions in a completely mechanical way as if he was a robot.”
Oatis himself wrote about his experiences in several articles.
“On the first day I admitted that I had done unofficial reporting, which I had; within three days I confessed that this was espionage, which — by any Western standard — it was not; and within seven days I confessed that I had spied for the U.S. government — which was a lie,” Oatis wrote.
A U.S. diplomatic offensive and trade and travel embargoes that badly hit the regime led the new Czechoslovak President Antonin Zapotocky to pardon Oatis in May 1953.
Oatis returned to the United States the same month and was assigned to AP’s United Nations staff where he worked until his retirement in 1984. His Czech AP colleagues, Tomas Svoboda, Pavel Woydinek and Petr Munz were sentenced to 20, 18 and 16 years respectively. They were all released in the late 1950s.
But relations between the two countries suffered for many decades to come.
Oatis, who died in 1997, was fully cleared only after dissident playwright Vaclav Havel led the peaceful Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist dictatorship in 1989.
During the 1960s, Czechoslovak judicial reviewers exonerated Oatis, but this finding was overturned in 1968 after the Soviet Union-led invasion of Warsaw Pact troops ousted Alexander Dubcek’s reformist government. In 1990, as the Soviet empire tottered, he was quietly cleared again.