IT IS, WHEN you stop to think about it, like a play by Vaclav Havel: the Czech government agrees, in the Helsinki Accords, to respect certain basic rights of its citizens. When it fails to do so, Mr. Havel, along with other Czechs whose humanistic challenge to the reigning orthodoxy marks them as "dissidents" in the state's eyes, launches a legal protest through official channels. The authorities ignore the protests, which are then picked up by Amnesty International and other outsiders. For thus making a legal protest asking the government to abide by its own promises, the Havel group is accused of "subversion." After a sham trial, the playwright It's just happened, of course. It's sickening. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe the local Communist Party leaders are open to ways to prevent individual challenges from becoming public confrontations. As Hungary's minister of culture said not long ago, some disagreements go to "the very foundations of our society" but "we have no wish to solve these problems dramatically." In Czechoslovakia, however, the rulers are permanently chilled by the specter of another "Prague Spring" -- the period in 1968, before Soviet tanks rolled in, when patriotic Czech communists tried to create "socialism with a numan face." Rather than flexibly accommodate considerations of human rights, the Prague leadership reacts harshly and immaturely in the Soviet style. Its evident purpose in the Havel affair is not only to punish one group of dissidents but also to intimidate Amnesty International.

Foolish thought. The attention that Amnesty and others turn on Prague arises from the wishes and interests of the brave men and women whose rights are being trampled. Moreover, it is not only human rights groups that care. Many Western governments, including the United States, have expressed their dismay at the Czech government's dishonoring of its international obligations. dThe Communist parties of Western Europe have voiced their embarrassment at this latest tawdry display of socialism with a policeman's face. Mr. Havel and his jailed comrades deserve honor -- and their liberty.