That sick feeling

MANY PEOPLE got a sick feeling in their stomach when they heard Supreme Court Justice Štefan Michalík read out his guilty sentence against the men accused of murdering Ľudmila Cervanová in 1976.

MANY PEOPLE got a sick feeling in their stomach when they heard Supreme Court Justice Štefan Michalík read out his guilty sentence against the men accused of murdering Ľudmila Cervanová in 1976.

It wasn't just that he read from a scrap of paper that looked as if he had fished it out of a garbage can, or that from the expression on his face he cared as much about dispensing justice as he did about due process.

It was more that Michalík, like others before him, ignored thousands of pages of evidence that had been hidden away by the communist establishment and were discovered by the defense in 2004. In doing so, he ignored the fact that the law requires the police and the courts to take into account all evidence, not just that which suits them.

It was also that he evidently relished his role, adding two years to some of the men's sentences because, he said, they had already been awarded Sk2.3 million for undue delays in their trial by the Constitutional Court, and thus had no right to clemency.

"Pre-trial custody is no holiday in a hotel room with free board," he said in dismissing allegations of ill-treatment by the accused at the hands of the police.

"It's a good thing for the accused that Slovakia no longer has the death penalty," he added.

The police treatment of lawyer Ernest Valko and entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák also left some people feeling queasy.

The men spent four days in police custody after being charged with extortion. Their crime? "Forcing" two men who they claimed had cheated Rehák of Sk15 million in a land deal to sign a statement acknowledging the debt before a public notary; the force they used was a threat to turn the matter over to the police if the men wouldn't agree to settle the matter out of court.

Given that a judge said in releasing them later that the written evidence police secured "was the work of a mentally ill person", it would be very interesting to know on what basis the police put these men in jail. Because jail is not just like asking people to wait in the foyer until they are called - it is, especially in Valko's case, a career-ending, traumatic experience that should only be used when there is no option.

And by what right did they seize Valko's computers, which contain confidential information vouchsafed to him by his clients under the assumption that their relationship was privileged? Could it have anything to do with the fact that many of Valko's clients, and the work he did, such as defending the SPP gas utility in a fraudulent bills of exchange case, was related to the former government?

The prospect of charges being laid against student Hedviga Malinová is another recent emetic from police ranks, and again it raises the spectre of a police force whose actions are eerily consistent with the interests of the current Fico cabinet.

Former police Anti-Corruption Unit boss Jozef Šátek told this newspaper he believes the police force is in its deepest crisis since 1989. He didn't say it, but you could probably include the Slovak judicial system in that category, because the continued presence of communist-era judges in the courts - judges who are insulated by law from attempts to remove them or scrutinize their verdicts - threatens the principle on which the rule of law is based, which is that the law must be applied by people who are impartial.

A lack of impartiality is exactly what rankles in these latest cases, and is what turns the stomach of everyone who knows that "there but for the grace of God go I".

By Tom Nicholson

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