Audio recording of the political trial of the Head of the Prague branch of the Associated Press William Nathan Oatis (1914–1997) and his co-workers T. Svoboda, P. Woydinek and P. Münz, whose main session took place before the State Court in Prague from 2 to 4 July 1951
U 109 • Opening of the trial by the Presiding Judge JUDr. Jaroslav Novák. Calling the defendants, reading charges by the State Prosecutor JUDr. Josef Urválek.
U 110 • Completion of the reading of charges and determination of the legal qualification of charges. Outline of the course of the trial. The accused W. N. Oatis interrogated (with the participation of a translator).
On previous activities of W. N. Oatis.
U 111 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
On Oatis’s intelligence training, on his contacts at the US Embassy in Prague, on the contents of his work notebook, instructions on espionage.
U 112 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
On the conspiracy meetings, on the form and character of Oatis’s reports. On the activities of the Prague branch of the AP.
U 113 • Magnetic tape missing, contains part of interrogation of W. N. Oatis
U 114 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
On Oatis’s interest in the imprisoned functionaries of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (especially in Clementis), on the activity of the alleged Oatis’s informer Miroslav Husták.
U 115 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
/Interrogation interrupted once in its course/
On assigning tasks to M. Husták, personal contacts of Oatis, collecting reports on imprisoned officials of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
U 116 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Oatis’s interest in information about events in Slovakia, as well as arrested persons from the military environment and officials from government offices. On the notes in his diary.
U 117 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Questions about the content of his personal diary, his sent reports on political trials in Czechoslovakia, the alleged Oatis’s network of informers.
U 118 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Oatis’s alleged contacts to persons in Paris and the US Embassy in Prague, financial and material rewards for informers.
U 119 • Continuation of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Oatis’s alleged contacts to the British and US Embassies in Prague, relation of foreign embassies and press agencies in Prague to the case under discussion, other Oatis’s contacts.
U 130 • Completion of the interrogation of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
His contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats in Prague. Additional questions from his defence counsel (JUDr. Vladimír Bartoš).
/Court session adjourned until 2.30 pm/
U 131 • Interrogation of Tomáš Svoboda.
His activities under the work of Oatis’s predecessors and ways of obtaining espionage information.
U 132 • Continuation of the interrogation of T. Svoboda.
His work for W. N. Oatis, on the involvement of Münz and Woydinka’s collaborators in obtaining espionage information. A brief confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Uncovering Oatis’s spy network.
U 133 • Completion of the interrogation of T. Svoboda.
Uncovering Oatis’s spy network. On finding a gun in the AP office. Svoboda’s contacts. Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator). Additional questions from Svoboda’s defence counsel (JUDr. Vlastimil Fáček).
Interrogation of Pavel Woydinek.
U 134 • Continuation of the interrogation of P. Woydinek.
The beginnings of his activities for AP under Oatis’s predecessors, his activities under Oatis, execution of his tasks until his arrest.
U 135 • Continuation of the interrogation of P. Woydinek.
Collecting information on personnel changes at the Ministry of Foreign Trade. The informers of P. Woydinek, Oatis’s instructions. On the people smuggler Vladimír Komárek.
U 136 • Completion of the interrogation of P. Woydinek.
On the activities of the Komárek group. On the activities of AP in Prague.
Additional questions from Woydinek’s defence counsel (JUDr. Jiří Vízek).
Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator) and of T. Svoboda.
/Court session adjourned for 15 minutes/
U 137 • Interrogation of Petr Münz.
On his older offense of 1947, the beginnings of his activities for AP. Obtaining spy reports. On the beginning of Oatis’s activity in Prague.
U 138 • Continuation of the interrogation of P. Münz.
His activities for Oatis, his interest in political meetings in Czechoslovakia between 1950 and 1951 and in the arrested party functionaries of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. On people smuggling activities of V. Komárek.
U 139 • Completion of the interrogation of P. Münz.
The fate of the gun in the AP office. Additional questions of Münz’s defence counsel (JUDr. František Vorel). Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator). Confrontation with testimonies of T. Svoboda a P. Woydinek.
Request by the Prosecutor to progressively hear witnesses and read Miroslav Husták’s protocol. Reminder of expert opinions in the field of military intelligence. Defence counsels agree with the proposal. The Court shall decide on this.
/Adjournment of the Court session until 3 July, 8 am/
U 140 • Interrogation of witnesses. Jiří Mucha called.
On his stay in England until 1945, contacts with Oatis and persons from the British Embassy in Prague. Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Interrogation of witnesses. Helena Kučerová called.
On making contacts with Oatis, forwarding of spy reports.
U 141 • Interrogation of witnesses – Helena Kučerová (completion).
On the spy reports handed over to Oatis. Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Interrogation of witnesses. Miroslav Havelka called.
On family relations and about his brother Jiří Havelka. Contacts with W. N. Oatis, forwarding of reports.
U 142 • Interrogation of witnesses – Miroslav Havelka (completion).
On appointments with W. N. Oatis. Confrontation with the testimony of W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Interrogation of witnesses. Vlasta Pánková called.
On her stay in London (1946 to 1950). Contacts with W. N. Oatis, his questions about the imprisoned functionaries of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (O. Šling, V. Clementis) and on sabotage in Brdy and Slovakia.
/Three magnetic tapes with witness interrogations missing: completion of interrogation of V. Pánková, further of Matěj Kubík, Jan Stránský, Jan Knetl, Lýdie Votavová and beginning of interrogation of J. Kratochvíl/
U 06 • Interrogation of witnesses – Jindřich Kratochvíl (completion).
On his cooperation with Woydinek, obtaining and forwarding of reports. Confrontation with P. Woydinek.
/Court session adjourned for 15 minutes/
Interrogation of witnesses. JUDr. Karel Loula called.
On his spy activities since 1949 and his cooperation with T. Svoboda.
U 20 • Interrogation of witnesses – JUDr. Karel Loula (completion).
On his visit to the AP office in Prague. Confrontation with testimonies of T. Svoboda and W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Interrogation of witnesses. Josef Pavelka called.
On his cooperation with V. Komárek. Initiator of the “Nelson” illegal group.
U 98 • Interrogation of witnesses – Josef Pavelka (completion).
On the murder of a member of the National Security Corps, provision for “Nelson”, illegal crossings of persons across borders.
/Interrogation of witnesses completed/
At the request of the defence counsel JUDr. V. Bartoš, W. N. Oatis completes his testimony (on connections to other spies, including diplomats), with the participation of a translator.
U 59 • Oatis’s additional testimony (completion).
On reports from foreign diplomats, orders from New York and the US Embassy in Prague.
The Prosecutor reads Miroslav Husták’s report on handing over the photo of the Koloděje castle to Oatis and submits other documents. Confrontation with W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
U 99 • The Prosecutor submits other documents. On the contents of Oatis’s notebook, testimony by W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator). The Court places the testimony in file.
The Prosecutor requests the preparation of expert opinions in the field of political and military intelligence.
/The Presiding Judge declares the continuation to be secret, orders the public out, stops audio recording, adjourns the hearing./
The trial continues with the closing speech of the State Prosecutor JUDr. Josef Urválek.
U 100 • Closing speech of the State Prosecutor (continuation).
List of criminal activities of the accused as an organized group.
U 106 • Closing speech of the State Prosecutor (continuation).
List of criminal activities of the accused as organized group, legal qualification of charges according to the Criminal Procedure Code.
U 107 • Closing speech of the State Prosecutor (completion).
List of criminal activities of the accused as organized group. Legal qualification of charges according to the Criminal Procedure Code, burden of proof, possible mitigating circumstances.
/Court session adjourned for 10 minutes/
U 108 • Final speeches of defence counsels. JUDr. Vladimír Bartoš (defence counsel of W. N. Oatis).
Final speeches of defence counsels. JUDr. Vlastimil Fáček (defence counsel of Tomáš Svoboda).
U 120 • Final speeches of defence counsels. JUDr. Vlastimil Fáček (completion).
Final speeches of defence counsels. JUDr. Jiří Vízek (defence counsel of Pavel Woydinek).
Final speeches of defence counsels. JUDr. František Vorel (defence counsel of Petr Münz).
U 121 • Final speeches of defence counsels. Dr. František Vorel (completion).
Final speeches of defendants. W. N. Oatis (with the participation of a translator).
Final speeches of defendants. Tomáš Svoboda.
Final speeches of defendants. Pavel Woydinek.
Final speeches of defendants. Petr Münz.
/The Presiding Judge closes the hearing for consultation on the judgment which is to be pronounced on 4 July at 8 am./
U 126 • The Presiding Judge JUDr. Jaroslav Novák pronounces the judgment and announces the amount of imposed prison sentences.
W. N. Oatis prison sentence of 10 years
T. Svoboda prison sentence of 20 years
P. Woydinek prison sentence of 18 years
P. Münz prison sentence of 16 years
Followed by reasoning of the judgement.
U 125 • The reasoning of the judgment given by JUDr. Jaroslav Novák continues.
Information on possible appeals against the ruling given with the possibility to consult with assigned defence counsels.
/Court session adjourned for 10 minutes/
Statement of the accused on the judgment (they accept the sentence).
The State Prosecutor lodges an appeal both in terms of the guilt and the sentence of the accused.
/Court session at the State Court in Prague ended/
(Political trial of the Head of the Prague branch of the Associated Press agency in 1951)
The phenomenon of big political trials within Communist parties, as well as trials of foreign nationals, was significant in the post-war period for many people’s democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe. The source and inspiration for such trials are to be found in the Soviet Union, which, after the liberation of much of Europe by its army in 1944–1945 and also on the basis of a number of bilateral diplomatic agreements, gained considerable political and eventually economic influence in these countries. The political trials in the USSR of 1935–1938, carried out by the OGPU (NKVD) secret police, were to become a model for similar trials in the new European people’s democracies after a long-running dispute broke out in 1948 between Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1922–1953) and Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) in Yugoslavia on the further development of socialism, the form of mutual relations and the functioning of the Yugoslav federation. Some of the contemporary failures of Soviet foreign policy, especially the unsuccessful political infiltration into the internal affairs of the newly formed Israel in the Middle East, which strictly rejected Soviet supremacy at last, were also reflected in the USSR’s intention to fasten new post-war people’s democratic vassals. Political trials in European people’s democratic countries were now to be conducted in the spirit of anti-Zionism (anti-Semitism), which was indeed reflected in a number of such trials. The Yugoslav crisis was again reflected in the “national” component of some show trials. Needless to emphasize the well-known fact that most of these trials of 1950s in the Czechoslovak Republic were, basically, fabricated or deliberately exaggerated and dramatized regarding the facts of the cases. They were prepared according to pre-developed scripts, including subsequent sentences to the defendants, who had to memorize their testimony for the main trial before the State Court during the preparatory proceedings.
Foreign nationals (especially from Western countries), who were generally considered to be the main enemies and saboteurs of the newly established people’s democratic conditions in the Soviet post-war zone and possible spies of Western liberal democracies, were often used in large trials. As it was not always easy for the security authorities and the judiciary to prosecute and subsequently try them (especially citizens of the world powers), the efforts of these authorities and state courts were at least aimed at denunciating them, conventional accusations of espionage, the imposition of at least lower custodial sentences, and, in some cases, at using the defendants in other political trials, often with high-ranking officials of Communist parties, to “help” to convict alleged party traitors in particular people’s democracies.
The charges in our trial, worked out by the Czechoslovak State Prosecutor’s Office already during the preparatory proceedings, concerning William N. Oatis and his three domestic agency employees were based on several basic offenses against Czechoslovak people’s democratic law, which were to be proved during the main trial before the State Court. The Prosecutor’s Office blamed both the Prague branch of the AP news agency itself for espionage, as the actions of Oatis’s agency predecessors were supposed to prove, as well as it blamed W. N. Oatis for consciously obtaining intelligence reports. Furthermore, the employees of the AP agency were supposedly indirectly involved in the murder of a member of the National Security Corps by knowingly cooperating with foreign agents, especially with the people smuggler Vladimír Komárek and with the alleged murderer of the police officer Josef Pavelka. At the same time, they were supposed to cover up Komárek from the Czechoslovak security authorities. W. N. Oatis was also to establish and maintain intelligence contact with some persons from the US Embassy in Prague. He was also accused of forcing his agency staff to gather information of an espionage nature, which he then sorted, verified and sent abroad by telex.
The problem was already in what kind of role and position the then domestic communist regime assigned to journalism and how much this idea differed from the daily work of a journalist in the countries of Western liberal democracies. As the Slovak historian Slavomír Michálek wrote, “the general idea of the Czechoslovak communist regime about a journalist in the early 1950s was different. As the only legitimate and publishable information, he could use only that which came from official sources. Everything else was espionage. In the eyes of this regime, the journalist did not have the right to look for information that its representatives did not want to publish” (Prípad Oatis. Československý komunistický režim verzus dopisovateľ Associated Press, p. 55).
As W. N. Oatis was an American citizen, the main trial before the State Court in Prague was conducted bilingually, i.e. in Czech and English. The main trial took place from 2 to 4 July 1951 in Prague-Pankrác. On 4 July 1951, all four defendants were found guilty by the State Court verdict and subsequently sentenced to custodial sentences, in accordance with the provisions of Act No. 86/1950 Coll. (Criminal Law).
Until March 1952, W. N. Oatis was not allowed to meet with any representative of the American side in prison. At that time, the bilateral negotiations of the Czechoslovak Republic with the United States of America, yet under strong economic pressure from the other party, resulted in release of Oatis, which, however, could only take place after the death of J. V. Stalin and the Czechoslovak President K. Gottwald. In April 1953, the leadership of the Czechoslovak government finally proposed the specific features and conditions of Oatis’s release from prison, after numerous American initiatives and threats of economic sanctions against the Czechoslovak Republic.
The new President of the Republic Antonín Zápotocký (1953–1957) used the traditional institute of inaugural amnesty and pardoned Oatis, which was preceded by long and secret negotiations with the American party on setting up a new mutual trade exchange and future political perception of newly discussed Oatis’s case. At the additional written request of US President Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961) of March 1953 and the letter of intercession of Oatis’s wife Laurabelle of 15 November 1952, W. N. Oatis was officially released from prison on 16 May 1953 and immediately expelled from Czechoslovakia. The other fellow convicts of this political trial had to continue to serve the larger part of their sentences in correctional facilities. While W. N. Oatis was surprisingly released after less than a fifth of the sentence, the co-defendants were not so lucky. Nevertheless, even the significantly shortened imprisonment of W. N. Oatis for a long time marked and to some extent predetermined his later work on the international stage, at the United Nations.
ALLWOOD, Edward. The Spy Case of AP Correspondent William Oatis. A Muddled Victim/Hero Myth of the Cold War. Journalism and Mass Communication Quaterly, 2010, 87(2), 263–280.
COPELAND, Miles Axe. Without Cloak or Dagger. The Truth about the New Espionage. New York 1974, esp. pp. 50–51.
HEINZERLING, Larry. Western Correspondents Display Cold War Courage. Nieman Reports [online]. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, 2006, 60(2) (Summer 2006), 45–47. Ed.: Melissa Ludtke [retrieved 2020-04-30]. As PDF available at www: https://niemanreports.org/articles/western-correspondents-display-cold-war-courage/.
HRADECKÝ, Adolf. Špioni ve službách USA zneškodněni. Rudé právo, 6 July 1951, 31(158), 2.
HUBIČKA, Jiří. Případ William Nathan Oatis a spol. Pozapomenutý soudní proces z roku 1951 ve světle historických faktů [online]. Český rozhlas 2, premiere: 24 June 2012, 22:05. In: Český rozhlas Dvojka: archiv [retrieved 2020-04-28]. Available at: https://prehravac.rozhlas.cz/audio/2661872.
KAPLAN, Karel. Československo v letech 1948–1953. Zakladatelské období komunistického režimu. Praha 1991.
KAPLAN, Karel – PALEČEK, Pavel. Komunistický režim a politické procesy v Československu. Praha 2001.
LUKEŠ, Igor. On the Edge of the Cold War. American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. Oxford 2012, esp. pp. 55–217.
MAHEL, Richard. Svědectví fragmentárního zvukového záznamu o soudním procesu s Williamem N. Oatisem v Praze v roce 1951. Archivní časopis, 2013, 63(2), 149–184.
MICHÁLEK, Slavomír. Prípad Oatis. Československý komunistický režim verzus dopisovateľ Associated Press. Bratislava 2005.
OATIS, William Nathan. Why I Confessed. Life, 21 September 1953, 35(12), 131–132, 135–136, 138, 140, 142.
VOREL, Jaroslav – ŠIMÁNKOVÁ, Alena – BABKA, Lukáš. Československá justice v letech 1948–1953 v dokumentech. Díl 1. Praha 2003, esp. pp. 192–289.
Prepared by: Mgr. Richard Mahel, Ph.D.
Translated by: Mgr. Pavel Baudisch