EIGHTEEN months after police rounded up the alleged leaders of the Takáč underworld gang in Bratislava, charges against seven men accused of racketeering and money laundering for the criminal group were dropped on December 20.
The seven men, including a policeman with the city's motorcycle unit, were charged in May 2004 with fraud, money laundering and organized crime in connection with the extortion of over 300 businesses in the Ružinov district of Bratislava.
Police claim the men were using two security firms, Vesuv K.T. Security of Bratislava and A.G.P. Security of Komárno, to extort monthly "protection fees" of anywhere from Sk5,000 upward from Bratislava bars, restaurants and retail shops. Although the businesses involved all signed security contracts with the firms, no guards were ever stationed on their premises.
"This is the way that organized crime usually offers security services," said Police Vice President Jaroslav Spišiak.
Police argued that the absence of guards is a clear violation of the Act on Security Services (SBS), which requires that security companies station a guard on the premises of business they are contracted to protect.
However, a year and a half after approving the filing of charges and the taking of five of the men into pre-trial custody, Bratislava Regional Prosecutor Iveta Kopčová ruled that violating the SBS Act did not constitute a crime - only a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of up to Sk1 million or stripping the security firm of its license.
Three days later, the Attorney General's Office came down on Kopčová's side.
"The acts of the entities whose representatives were criminally charged were not crimes," said Jana Tökölyová of the Attorney General's Office.
"The charges were dropped because they were unjustified," added Attorney General's Office spokesperson Svetlana Husárová.
Among the former accused who was released from custody was lawyer Martin Bognár.
"I regard the approach of the police as illegal, and the fact that I spent three months in pretrial custody as an absolute infringement of my rights," he said.
The decision was a heavy blow for the police, which have made combatting organized crime a priority under the current Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.
Slovak law enforcement officials had hailed the bust of the Takáč group as a major blow against mob crime in the country.
Police Vice President Jaroslav Spišiak appealed the prosecutor's decision to the Attorney General's Office.
Police were also suprised recently by a decision by the Special Prosecutor's Office to release from jail two other alleged members of the Takáč group, Marián Gál and Patrik Vidašič, who had been charged with the murders of rival gang members Karol Patasi and Peter Havaši. The supervising prosecutor ruled that the men could no longer influence the investigation or intimidate witnesses, but police disagreed.
Tension has long existed between the police and the prosecutor's office, with the latter faulting the quality of the former's work, and the police writhing at decisions by prosecutors not to send major cases to trial.
Prosecutors in Slovakia oversee investigations and decide whether cases reach court, and thus play a key role in the country's justice system.
This tension has rarely boiled over into public invective, however, but that cannon was broken by Attorney General Dobroslav Trnka on December 23 when he wrote in a public statement without further explanation: "I'm not surprised that the police vice-president [Spišiak] doesn't understand this decision, and not just in this case."
In the latest Takáč case, the police and prosecutors differ mainly over whether breaking the SBS Act constitutes an infringement of Section 127 of the Criminal Code regarding infractions against the binding principles of business relationships, which is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. According to Radio Twist, Kopčová decided it does not, upholding after 18 months a complaint against the charges filed by the accused.
Tibor Piršel, an attorney for the accused, said: "Breaking the law on security services does not amount to a crime."
The decision follows on a warning to the police from the Supreme Court in January 2005 that racketeering and organized crime cases have to be based on solid evidence, not just on "speculation, indications and hunches".
During their investigation of the extortion racket, police questioned about 70 business people, but none confirmed that they had been extorted.
The Takáč group is a Bratislava organized crime syndicate named after slain founder Ján Takáč. Spišiak announced the dissolution of the group in May 2004 following a massive SWAT team raid at the Amici pizzeria in Ružinov, where up to 50 alleged underworld "soldiers" had assembled to collect their pay.
Ján Takáč and close associates Róbert Pál and Jozef Surovčík were gunned down in 2003 during a gang war in the Bratislava underworld.