THE ARREST and detention of Bratislava attorney Ernest Valko on extortion charges last week has been criticized by Slovak legal professionals as a violation of several laws.
In particular, the Slovak Bar Association objected to the fact that computers and files were seized by the police that had nothing to do with the charges (see related story, page 3), which constituted a violation of the lawyer-client confidentiality principle.
Others criticized the fact that Valko was left in custody for five days as heavy-handed, given the circumstances of the case.
"Dr Valko volunteered everything, he was willing to provide the police with any materials they needed," said Valko's attorney, Ondrej Mularčík. "His detention was very irregular and deliberate."
Ernest Valko and entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák were arrested on November 15 and charged with the extortion of two men, Viliam and Rastislav Vittek, who they claimed had cheated Rehák of Sk15 million in several land deals. The Vitteks said that Valko and Rehák had forced them to sign a statement acknowledging the debt in front of a public notary, saying that if they didn't, the matter would be referred to the police.
Valko and Rehák were remanded in custody until November 20, when the Bratislava I District Court rejected a request by a state prosecutor to keep them in custody. The Bratislava Regional Court was to rule on the prosecutor's appeal of this decision on November 27.
For Rehák, who resigned his position as chairman of the board of the Orange mobile operator on November 21, it was the second extortion charge against him in a week. He and his sons Juraj and Martin were charged with extorting a former accountant at one of their firms who they claimed had embezzled millions.
The arrest and detention of Valko in particular was faulted on a number of counts. For starters, police did not call Valko in for questioning on whether he had extorted the Vitteks, even though the charge was first laid in July. Instead, they arrested him on the street and immediately took him into custody.
According to legal experts, the manner of Valko's arrest violated the principle of proportionality, according to which police must adapt the amount of force used and the extremity of the tactics chosen to the circumstances and the nature of the accused.
Jozef Šátek, the former director of the Anti-Corruption Unit at police headquarters (2002 to 2005), said that police had broken the law in their arrest of Valko.
People can be arrested, he said, under the following conditions: "If it is necessary to identify someone, if they are caught in the commission of a crime, if it is necessary to prevent them from possibly escaping, and if it is necessary to secure evidence".
Šátek added that police investigators were entitled to arrest a suspect if the suspect had been ignoring police requests for cooperation, and if this was preventing police from charging the suspect. However, Valko was not charged until the day after he was detained, while the crime he is alleged to have committed occurred in July, five months before the police decided to act.
Legal experts also criticized the way in which police searched Valko's offices after detaining him.
Not only was Valko not absent during the search, but documents and files were taken that did not even belong to him or relate to the charges.
The Slovak Bar Association (SAK) protested the search. "By removing the attorney's software, the criminal justice organs repeatedly failed to respect the law requiring that the relationship between lawyers and their clients remain confidential, especially given that these [Valko's] clients had nothing to do with the crime under investigation," the SAK said in a statement.
But Police Corps President Ján Packa said that investigators had only removed data that they were allowed to by law: "The police only confiscated those things that related to the crime," he said. As proof that the search had been legal he said that SAK representatives had been invited to attend, and at the end had signed the record of the search. "They were there precisely so no one could suspect us of anything," he said.
However, according to documents obtained by The Slovak Spectator, SAK representative Ján Havlát protested the seizure of computers from the office, and wrote a note on the police record: "The criminal justice organs, during their search, violated the Advocacy Act, the client confidentiality principle, and the Act on the Protection of Personal Data."
Presumption of guilt?
Jozef Vozár of the Institute of State and Law, and Lucia Gazereková from the Comenius University Law Faculty, claimed in the November 20 edition of the Sme daily that top police officials had violated the principle of presumed innocence in the case of both Valko and Rehák.
"If an individual is merely summoned to provide an explanation [as Valko and Rehák were on November 15], there are no legitimate grounds to inform the public of this, no matter who the person is", the legal theorists wrote. "The way in which [Valko and Rehák's] full names were published, and the fact that the crime was specified and classified as exceptionally grave - all before any charges had even been laid - is a violation of [Valko and Rehák's] most basic rights."
On the day the men were detained, Packa said of Rehák that "he was brought in for questioning on suspicion of having committed an exceptionally grave crime."
On the next day, Packa said: "We cannot release these individuals until we have performed all of the necessary tasks. Then we will decide [whether to charge them and request they be remanded in custody]." Police Vice-President Michal Kopčík also announced that "entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák and attorney Ernest Valko" had been detained, because the police suspected them of having committed "an exceptionally grave crime". Asked whether the police had any evidence other than the claims of the plaintiffs, Kopčík replied: "You're right, it's claim against claim, and neither we nor the case investigator can say who is telling the truth."
Lawyer Ondrej Mularčík also told journalists that part of the case file, regarding the extortion charges against Valko and Rehák, is classified, meaning that the defense has no access to it, and still does not know the full extent of the police charges. "The European Convention on Human Rights grants the accused the right to be fully informed of the grounds for their prosecution," Mularčík noted.
Attorney General Dobroslav Trnka, in an interview with the Sme daily, said that he would wait for the November 27 decision of the Regional Court on the prosecutor's appeal of Valko and Rehák's release from jail. "Immediately following the decision, they [the prosecutors on the case] will show me the entire case file, including the classified part, which the Regional Court did not see."
The Slovak Spectator asked Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák for an explanation of the police approach to Valko and Rehák, but the minister said that anyone who felt they had been unjustly treated by the police should submit a complaint to the ministry's inspection division. "The inspection division is the only body competent to pass judgement on such matters," Kaliňák said.
According to information obtained by the Hospodárske Noviny daily, the secret service has prepared a list of corruption cases under the last eight years of Dzurinda government that it will gradually be making available to PM Fico and the Anti-Corruption Unit, suggesting that further investigations are pending against other prominent people.
Rehák is one of the largest financial sponsors of the opposition Christian Democrats in recent years, while Valko, the former head of the Czechoslovak Constitutional Court, has defended several former cabinet ministers, including former Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš in a libel suit against Fico.
Given the high stakes in the cases, Attorney General Trnka said there would be "consequences" if the prosecution's case against Valko turned out to be weak.
"If the proof secured does not allow the prosecutor to take the case to court, the case will be dropped," he said. "Further consequences will probably flow from this, but I don't want to get ahead of myself." e courts had 72 hours to rule on the request.