THE VERDICT that the Supreme Court hands down on December 4 in the trial of seven men accused of raping and killing medical student Ľudmila Cervanová in 1976 will tell us a great deal about the state of the Slovak judiciary 17 years after the Velvet Revolution.
The plot is fairly simple. On the one side are seven men from Nitra who have already spent almost a decade in jail in the 1980s for this crime, but who claim they were railroaded by the communist court system, and terrorized into confessing by brutal police interrogators. On the other side is a panel of three Supreme Court justices, two of whom (Juraj Kliment and Štefan Michálik) have already ruled (negatively) on this case in the past, while the third (Peter Hattala) sat on it for nine months in 1999 without even setting a court date, after which the Constitutional Court ruled the rights of the accused to a speedy trial had been violated, and awarded them Sk2.3 million.
Put another way: On the one side are men whom almost the entire country believes to be rapists and murderers, while on the other are judges that, if they freed the men, would be admitting that they and their friends in the judicial system knowingly participated in a mock trial.
The outcome would be a foregone conclusion, were it not for the strength of the evidence pointing to the innocence of the accused, or at least raising doubts about their guilt:
* 8,000 pages of evidence hidden away in a police archives in Levoča and discovered in 2004 has never been admitted in court, even though it contains 315 witness statements recorded by investigators from 1976 to 1981 that identify other men as the culprits;
* several of the defendants have alibis placing them elsewhere at the time of the crime, but these have never been admitted by the courts;
* an autopsy performed on the corpse that was found on July 14, 1976 showed that the victim had not been raped, while a review of the autopsy said that the lack of bruising made it unlikely she had been forcibly drowned, as the police alleged;
* the corpse was never identified in person by her relatives, only on the basis of personal effects that were easily purchased in stores at the time, and that were later lost by the police before they could be returned to her family;
* all of the defendants say they were subjected to physical and mental abuse by their communist interrogators to make them confess, but these complaints have never been investigated.
These points, let it be said, are only the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has had anything to do with this case knows how absurd some of the state's case is, such as the contention that a woman who allegedly watched the murder but did nothing to stop it slipped away from a rafting trip and hitchhiked 180 kilometers to Bratislava from eastern Slovakia between 18:00 and 22:00, attended a disco, watched a murder, hitched back to her camp in the middle of the night and in the pitch dark, and slipped back into her tent without waking her fellow students. And yet this is the quality of the "proof" that convicted these people back in 1982.
We can talk for weeks about the wisdom of canceling the Special Court, or of the need to reform the judicial system, but all those words boil down to this: Does the highest court in the land have the courage to at least admit these people might have been wronged? Or will it take a few more decades before justice is more important to this country's judges than covering for their buddies?
By Tom Nicholson
4. Dec 2006 at 0:00