Controlling anti-government protests and other unauthorized public demonstrations was brutally simple before Prague's 1989 Velvet Revolution. "Participants were enemies of the state and those who didn't disperse were knocked down, hit with a truncheon or kicked," says a policeman calling himself Petr who did protest duty during his police academy training in 1989.
The methods have changed since then. Security officers are no longer encouraged to beat protesters, nor are they guided by a police-state ideology. And many receive psychological training to help them control their emotions under stress, something the communist regime never offered, according to Petr.
But how much have methods changed? "I organized demonstrations in the late '80s, and although there was frequent police beating I never heard of an incident when a cop would hit a woman in the head with a truncheon or point his [unloaded] pistol at the head of a 17-year-old girl [during interrogation] and pull the trigger," says Stanislav Penc, head of the Documentation Center for Human Rights, a Prague civic group that monitors such abuses.
Penc is referring to the much publicized police ill treatment of dozens of demonstrators and passers-by following a so-called Global Street Party, a gathering organized by environmental and left-wing youth groups in Prague on May 16, 1998. On that night crowds overturned a police car, destroyed a billboard and smashed shop windows. But according to Penc and a 1999 report by Amnesty International, demonstrators had begun to disperse before around 100 club-wielding officers struck, beating and kicking those suspected of involvement. Mistreatment of some 50 detainees continued at a police station where, according to Penc, they were kicked and beaten again. Others were mistreated at a hospital where they were taken to determine whether they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Jana Zoubkova, a 49-year-old translator of German contemporary literature, says she was a mere spectator until she tried to defend one demonstrator. She suffered a brain concussion and a cut when an officer delivered a truncheon blow to her head. "There was no warning. The police just jumped out of their cars and started beating everyone in sight. I literally saw blood squirting as their truncheons fell," she says. "I have never seen anything like this. I will never forget that day."
Police president Jiri Kolar insists the agency has come a long way over the past two years. This month's International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting, which will involve more than a fourth of the nation's police force in maintaining order, will be the ultimate test. "They are trained to stand as a concrete wall and not be moved by anything," Kolar says. "Our tolerance level will be very high when it comes to protests, no matter how vocal or radical. Where it drops to zero is when protesters turn to violence, start damaging property or try to stop the opening of the meetings."
Petr, who is 30 and continues to serve on the force, doubts the police will be able to talk down the thousands of protesters expected in Prague for the meeting. "There is no nice way of dealing with a hostile mob," he says. "If you try, it's either ineffective or the police sustain too many injuries." But he hopes they won't overreact as much as he did on Oct. 28, 1989, when he hit a protester three times with a truncheon. "He kept looking me in the eye and calling me Gestapo and Green Brain. It pissed me off, and I was also scared," he says. "I am not a violent type, but it was just too much."