Cervanová accused head back to jail

THE SUPREME Court handed down a final verdict on December 4 in the 1976 rape and murder of medical student Ľudmila Cervanová, confirming the guilt of six men who have already done time for the crime, and even adding jail time for four of them.

Accused Milan Andrášik (left) consults with his defense counsel at the Supreme Court on December 4. Andrášik and three other men will be heading back to jail for a crime they maintain they didn't commit.
photo: ČTK

THE SUPREME Court handed down a final verdict on December 4 in the 1976 rape and murder of medical student Ľudmila Cervanová, confirming the guilt of six men who have already done time for the crime, and even adding jail time for four of them.

The decision, which ends the longest criminal case in Slovak history, shocked the defendants, who had been hoping that the discovery in 2004 of 8,000 pages of witness statements originally collected by state investigators from 1976 to 1981 but then buried in a secret police archives would convince the court to overturn their convictions.

"We will be submitting a special appeal to the Supreme Court as well as constitutional challenges," said Alan Böhm, counsel for the defence. "Then we will be taking this case to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Luckily, we are now part of Europe."

Meanwhile, human rights activists spoke of mounting a campaign in support of the men.

None of these responses, however, alter the fact that four of the men - Milan Andrášik, Miloš Kocúr, František Čerman and Stanislav Dúbravický - will be returning to jail, 16 years after being released under a 1990 Czechoslovak federal court verdict which found 72 procedural errors in their original trial.

Nor do they alter the belief of the prosecution, the courts and a large part of Slovak society that the defendants got what they had coming to them. The presiding judge at the December 4 court session, Štefan Michalík, said that "it is a good thing for the accused that Slovakia no longer has the death penalty".

The crime

Prosecutor Vlachovský.
photo: ČTK

The six men (a seventh, Roman B., was excused from the proceedings for poor health) were declared guilty of abducting Cervanová, then a medical student, from the Unic disco in Bratislava's Mlynská Dolina university complex, raping her in an apartment in a different part of the city, and then drowning her in a nearby lake after she threatened to go to the police.

Criminal law expert Juraj Kolesár, the former defense counsel for Milan Andrášik, one of the accused, told The Slovak Spectator that the case was unusual. "This case is a rarity due to the fact that there is not a single physical piece of evidence of the guilt of the accused, which means that this must have been the perfect murder. And in history that has almost never happened."

The guilt of the seven men, all of whom were from Nitra, rests on confessions the police secured from three of them in the early 1980s. However, all of the accused said they were forced to confess by threats of capital punishment, or by being lodged in cells with career criminals who had been bribed to torment them.

In October 1990, the Czechoslovak Supreme Court released them from jail, on the grounds that the lower courts had not allowed them to defend themselves properly. The case was returned to a lower court with instructions to repair the 72 procedural and factual errors that had occured in the investigation and the court trial. However, in the 16 years since that verdict, neither the Bratislava regional court nor the Supreme Court addressed these concerns.

The Levoča archive

Stanislav Dubravický will also have to do time.
photo: ČTK

As The Slovak Spectator reported earlier, in 2004 defense attorneys located a file in a police archives in Levoča named "Ján H." (the name of the man first accused of the crime but later released). According to the information of The Slovak Spectator, investigators released Ján H. from custody not only because he had an alibi for July 9, 1976, but also because he was a close friend of the son of the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Gustáv Husák. The file contains 8,000 pages of witness testimony and other documents related to the Cervanová murder.

Among other things, the evidence hidden away in Levoča under mysterious circumstances in the 1980s shows that top officials in the Communist Party followed the course of the investigation very closely. A letter dated October 1, 1976 and signed by a Major Kubala, the head of the investigation division of the federal police, contains the following statement: "Please find attached photographs related to the murder of Ľudmila Cervanová for the use of General Secretary Gustáv Husák".

The interest of top party functionaries in the case was likely related to the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Ľudovít Cervan, the father of Ľudmila Cervanová, according to information obtained by The Slovak Spectator had been the military attaché for Czechoslovakia in Libya and Saudi Arabia. At the time his daughter was murdered, Cervan was assigned to an air force base in Piešťany on a program called "Flight Training for Foreign Applicants". Cervan was a specialist in weaponry electronics for fighter jets, and lectured mostly military students from Arab countries.

The communist leadership concealed the existence of such training courses; the public did not find out about them until after the 1989 revolution.

Miloš Kocúr was devastated by the decision.
photo: ČTK

The Levoča archives evidence also contains the transcripts of the police questioning of three Arabs who were at the Unic Club the night Cervanová was abducted and killed, as well as witness statements identifying the kidnappers as having dark skin, as if of Arab or African descent. A criminal law expert who asked to remain anonymous said that the secrecy of the military training courses would have been a sufficient motive for the regime to follow the investigation closely, and even to steer it towards certain suspects, such as seven young men from Nitra who until 1981 were not suspected of involvement.

In total, the archives contains the depositions of 315 witnesses who were at the disco on the night Cervanová was killed. However, the Supreme Court has refused to admit the evidence since it was unearthed. "The claim of the defence that the file was manipulated and that proof was buried is unfounded," said Supreme Court justice Michalík. "The evidence that was secured was sufficient to ascertain what happened, and represent an unbroken whole."

Bratislava region prosecutor Robert Vlachovský also judged the files to be irrelevant to the case: "The guilt of the accused is proven by other evidence that is in the case file", he told journalists attending the trial.

Defense attorney Böhm, however, told The Slovak Spectator that the police were simply not allowed to choose what evidence to use in a case: "The Constitutional Court has already ruled that a selective approach cannot be taken to evidence. That means that no one is allowed to choose what part of the evidence secured [i.e. witness statements] is included in the court file, and which is not. It also means that the court is simply not allowed to ignore such evidence."

Federal court decision

The Czechoslovak Federal Court decision of October 19, 1990 faulted the original court trial of 1982 for not including the evidence that eventually turned up in Levoča in 2004: "We regard it as another shortcoming in the [lower] court's approach that it did not take account of the evidence contained in the case file of accused Ján H., against whom charges were dropped. This file must contain information and evidence related to the case."

Among the 315 witnesses who gave evidence, none claimed that the six men eventually jailed for the murder - František Čerman, Milan Andrášik, Stanislav Dúbravický, Juraj Lachman, Pavol Beďač, and Miloš Kocúr - were at the disco. Nor did they see any of the witnesses that in the early 1980s identified the "Nitra gang" Viera Z., Naďa B., Imrich O., and others.

The Levoča evidence confirms the presence of only one later witness, Dr. Jozef Š., who figured in the first investigation, as well as in the later one when the case was re-opened under Prague investigator Eduard Pálka. However, Jozef Š.' testimony in 1976 differed from what he said in 1981. Jozef Š. himself said during one phase of the trial in the Bratislava Regional Court in 2003 that the police under Pálka had put so much pressure on him during his interrogation that he no longer knows what the truth is.

However, Justice Michalík apparently disagreed with his counterpart at the federal Supreme Court, Vladimír Veselý, that the absence of the Ján H. file was a serious procedural flaw. Supreme Court spokeswoman Eva Rupcová said that "all of the evidence presented to the court, including the confessions of the accused, was so unequivocal that the court was of the opinion that no further evidence could change its decision."

Nor did the court even deal with the issue of whether the fact 8,000 pages of evidence had been removed from the case file and hidden away under a "top secret" designation meant that someone had manipulated the case. "In the archives we found evidence that clearly confirms that the entire case from its beginning to this day was manipulated. Evidence was secured by the police and was in all probability deliberately concealed from the court," said Böhm.

Conflicts in testimony

The Supreme Court also did not remark on the differences in the testimony of witnesses before the Bratislava Region Court.

The police version, which was upheld by the court in the 1980s, claimed that Milan Andrášik and František Čerman had been at the disco with two French girls named Silvia and Lydia Cohen, who were in Czechoslovakia visiting Čerman. The police even claimed that the two girls behaved so suggestively at the disco that everyone noticed them. For their part, the Cohen sisters demanded that the police take their statement, because they were convinced they had been at Unic, but the day before the kidnapping. The police, however, did not take their statements, because they regarded them as unreliable witnesses. The sisters then sent the police their diary that they had kept while in Bratislava, which bore out their version of events. The case investigators, however, claimed that the diary was a fake. Silvia Cohen did not actually testify in court until 2003, where she repeated her claim to have been with two of the accused at the disco on July 8, 1976. However, neither the regional court nor the Supreme Court took her testimony into account.

Pressure from investigators

All seven men said they had been pressured into confessing by the case investigators. Milan Andrášik also said he had been housed with a brutal inmate who threatened to kill him if he didn't confess. The inmate, Ivan Fagan, confirmed the story for the Nový Čas daily on March 22, 2001: "We were put together in cell 226. Yes, I threatened him, and I forced him to write a confession. I hid it in a book jacket, which was given to the investigator according to our agreement. I told him [Andrášik]: "Hang yourself, you bastard! What are you living for? Yes, I forced him to do it. And that confession was the principal evidence used in court."

But Michalík denied the charge: "The appeal court came to the conclusion that the confession of the accused that was secured in pre-trial proceedings was not obtained illegally, by the use of violence. Conditions in pre-trial custody in such serious cases are tough and demanding. It's not like a holiday in a hotel room with full board."

Witness Jozef Š. in 2003 also spoke of pressure from the police: "Facts were suggested to me, often accompanied by the threat that I would not be allowed to complete school. My mother died, and they detained me for 24 hours, demanding that I give evidence. But they would not give me a statement to sign until I gave them names they had dictated to me, and which they wanted to get into the statement."

Witness Peter O. also told the Bratislava court he had given evidence under pressure: "During the interrogations they put pressure on me. A guy came in and asked them what they were playing at, that they should just belt me a couple of times, and that they would get what they wanted from me one way or another. Yes, I was afraid."

The worst pressure was probably applied to crown witness Viera Z., whom police detained several times for 48 hours in pre-trial proceedings despite the fact she was never charged, and that she was first pregnant, and later nursing a child. She told The Slovak Spectator that the police had said they would hold here, and thus separate her from her baby, until she confessed that she had been at the disco in 1976 and had later gone with the seven men to the flat where she had witnessed the rape and then the murder of Ľudmila Cervanová. In order to secure her release, she did as the police wished.

She only later realized she could not have been at the disco because she had been on a school rafting trip on Revištské Podzámčie, 180 kilometres from Bratislava. Given that all 34 members of the trip confirmed her story, and said she had not been absent a single day, the police came up with the story that she had slipped away on the evening of July 9 and hitchhiked to Bratislava, attended the disco, gone to the flat and watched a mass rape and murder, and then been driven back to Revištské Podzámčie in such silence that her return to her tent had not even been noticed by her tent-mate. Viera Z. said this theory was illogical, and that she would have had no reason to leave her tent and hitchhike to Bratislava. She also asked the investigators to verify whether such a trip was even technically possible, but her request was denied. In court, when she denied the police version, she was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to 2.5 years in jail.

The federal court in 1990 ordered that the people who had been with Viera Z. be questioned and that the court verify whether it was possible to do the trip as the police claimed, but until this day this has not been done.

When this reporter visited Revištské Podzámčie, we found the camp where Viera. Z's class had stayed, and where students have camped for decades. It is on the Hron River, and the only way Viera Z. could have got to Bratislava would have been to walk several kilometres through a thick forest in the dark (her friends testified they had seen her around the campfire), or take a 15 or 20 minute walk to an access road after swimming the Hron, which at this point is wide and deep.

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