A ray of hope on East-bloc human rights
Ladislav Lis, former Czechoslovak Communist Party activist and - before his arrest - a spokesman of the Charter 77 human rights group, has just been freed from prison.
Archbishop Luigi Poggi, the Vatican's special envoy for Eastern Europe, recently spent three days in Prague.
The two events might seem unrelated, but they are not.
Archbishop Poggi's visit earlier this month was a first substantive attempt in many years to start talks between the Czechoslovak government and the Holy See.
It marked a break in Czechoslovakia's anti-church campaign, which had intensified after the Pope's visit to Poland last June.
Moreover, the Poggi visit could affect the political conditions under which Mr. Lis and many others have been jailed - and therefore the religious and human rights situation in Czechoslovakia.
In other parts of Eastern Europe, the human-rights record is uneven.
* Bulgaria rarely features in Western monitoring reports. There may be conflicts within the party, but there is no evidence of popular opposition outside it. That is perhaps due to the steadily improved living standards which economic reform has brought about. There are thought to be few political prisoners.
* Romania presents a picture of unremitting repression. In recent years, both worker protest and a wave of literary dissidence were crushed. Repressive measures against religious adherents continue.
* Hungary has a long-established ''liberal'' image. And though it has recently reacted more vigorously against a prolific outpouring of literary samizdat, its treatment of those involved has remained notably light.
* Poland is a special case. It had a history of relative tolerance through the 1960s and '70s, but martial law has led to greater restraints today.
Nearly 250 Poles are still being detained without trial or are serving sentences arising from the December 1981 crackdown on Solidarity. But the government has seemed to be trying for conciliation, even if such efforts have not had notable effect. Recently tensions between the government and the Roman Catholic Church have flared over government prohibition of crucifixes in public buildings, including schools.
* Czechoslovakia's pretext for repression dates back to the ill-fated ''Prague Spring'' of 1968. Today's targets are the relatively few who still actively challenge the government and call for ''normalization.''
Recent, careful monitoring has shown that of some 90 political dissidents known to have been in prison late last year, at least 44 were still behind bars. (The number might be higher, since lesser cases go unnoted by the domestic press and thus remain unknown outside Czechoslovakia.)
Last year, Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted issued between them no fewer than 78 documents. These not only chronicled human rights violations, but also protested the government's hostility to religion and its educational discrimination against the children of dissidents.
The two groups claim thegovernment has also alienated Czechoslovak young people by denying them, for ideological reasons, normal outlets for their energies and frustrations.
There is no hint yet of any relaxation of the regime's attitudes toward Charter 77. But the Poggi visit and the fact that his talks are to be continued could lead to some modification.
First, it could ease state interference with churches and denominations in general and with the Catholic Church in particular. This and the frequent persecution of priests have long been the most severe in Eastern Europe.
Second, the visit could bring some relaxation of the regime's obsessive attitude toward so-called opposition.
Poggi's visit followed a surprise meeting last December between Pope John Paul II and Prague Foreign Minister Bohuslav Chnoupek while Mr. Chnoupek was on an official visit to Italy.
Though ostensibly concerned with nuclear war and international tensions, their talk must have turned to the Pope's concern about the deteriorating situation for religion generally in Czechoslovakia.
If recent statements are any indication, Prague's hard-liners are in no mood for change. But others in the leadership are quietly urging economic reform. They are concerned about the country's bad international image.