Fight against corruption must go on

SINCE he became justice minister in July 2006, Štefan Harabin has tried to dissolve the Special Court, which has dealt with the bankrupt pyramid schemes and other major corruption scandals, and the Special Prosecution Office, calling them unconstitutional.
Last October, he also fired seven justices of Regional or District Courts in a span of two days. The dismissals mainly affected courts that supported the justice reforms launched by the previous minister.

Justice Minister Štefan Harabin
photo: SITA

SINCE he became justice minister in July 2006, Štefan Harabin has tried to dissolve the Special Court, which has dealt with the bankrupt pyramid schemes and other major corruption scandals, and the Special Prosecution Office, calling them unconstitutional.

Last October, he also fired seven justices of Regional or District Courts in a span of two days. The dismissals mainly affected courts that supported the justice reforms launched by the previous minister.

As chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1998 to 2003, Harabin had big conflicts with the justice ministers at the time - first Ján Čarnogurský, then Daniel Lipšic. As justice minister, he has clashed with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Milan Karabín.

Harabin launched a suit against Karabín because the chief justice refused to let a justice ministry inspector enter his court. The suit was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in late September.

Harabin declined requests for an interview with The Slovak Spectator, but he answered questions by e-mail.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What requirements do you have for a judge - professional or personality characteristics? What guarantees are there for political independence and impartiality when it comes to choosing judges?

Štefan Harabin (ŠH):As a minister, I just submit the results of the competitive entrance examinations to the Judicial Council. The role of a minister is quite limited, but I would certainly not nominate a former counter-intelligence agent from before the Velvet Revolution, or a member of the secret service. The law precisely sets the procedure for choosing a judge; but in spite of this, in the past, people have managed to pass the judge's exam without the amount of practice stipulated by law, and they ended up in a judge's gown. Today, this cannot happen.

There is a psychological test, too, and you can hardly deceive it. I think a prospective judge must be a person who accepts the fact that they will bear a burden their whole life, and that they will have to resist various temptations - for example, in commercial litigations. It is more of a mission than a mere vocation, just like the medical professions and teaching. We cannot pay them enough, as that would not be possible.

TSS: How do you see the need to guarantee political independence when choosing the heads of courts? How can that be achieved?

ŠH: Again, there are competitive exams, and a (selection) council where the ministry does not have a majority but only one representative. Tests are delivered by the Judicial Academy, which bears the responsibility. The minister chooses from the three best. I did not push through this law, my predecessor did.

Laws have to be universal. Before, no one cared if the judge was selected from the first three candidates, but now the opposition is crying, 'Harabin should only choose the winner.' I have almost always respected the winner; and in cases when I decided otherwise, the results confirmed my decision. I would be happy if this power to choose was extended to the Judicial Council.

TSS: What do you think are the criteria for assessing the quality of the judicial system?

ŠH: The quality and the promptness of the proceedings, in order to obtain a valid judgment or ruling in a realistic time. The judgments must be clear and have logic. The law is not meant for a handful of scholars. The rulings have to be unambiguous, convincing and not pointing fingers, trying to avoid the burden of responsibility for the final verdict.

TSS: How do you control the quality of the administration of justice?

ŠH: Through the system of appeals and reviews, and complaints at the Constitutional Court. The District Court "oversees" the Regional one, and the Supreme Court is above both of them. Hardly anyone feels, when speaking about corruption in the judiciary, that there is a system of control where the higher courts control the lower ones.

In a criminal trial, we also have prosecutors. I would not like to insult all the honest lawyers, but a few cases have become known where clients are asked for money, allegedly to bribe judges, but a judge might never come to see the money and would never have taken it, as he or she is honest.

TSS: How do you justify the re-establishment of courts that were previously closed down? Was there any analysis that showed the need to reopen them? If there was, where is it currently available to the public?

ŠH: First, there was a project with Austria. We have common historical roots in the judiciary. In Austria, they have courts with two judges, they have a much bigger judicial machinery, and moreover they have a lower number of cases.

Austrian judges try one-quarter fewer cases than ours do. Can I ask (ours) for even more?

Although I require more from them, I have no chance to do that without increasing the number of judges. We have mainly expert arguments from the judicial practice, the support of local administration representatives, and the support of citizens. The courts are meant to serve them, paid from their taxes.

TSS: The reopening of these courts and the increase in the number of judges will no doubt be costly. What total costs are anticipated? Is there any financial analysis of this solution, and if so, where is it available to the public?

ŠH: It will not be costly at all. The courts will only be established where the building is cost-free. The furniture will be made by prisoners. And the judges who were forced to leave the old courts will apply for a job at the "new" ones.

I asked how much money was saved by closing the courts down - the shutdown cost almost Sk100 million. According to the National Control Office, only the wages of drivers and cleaning ladies were saved. We will not even need Sk20 million to make the courts operate.

TSS: How are these expenses expected to be covered? Where will the ministry save money?

ŠH: The government has bound the Finance Minister to find the resources. There is still prime minister's reserve. He has understood the importance of this step, and he has supported it.

TSS: Do you think that the position of senior court officials, introduced by your predecessor Daniel Lipšic in order to take some of the workload off judges, has been effective in practice? How do you see their future?

ŠH: It did not bring the expected effect - a sufficient acceleration of the proceedings. Judging was left to judges anyway. They will surely keep the rights they have acquired, although most of them have the ambition to wear the judge's gown. But I prefer the court candidate position, as established in the Czech Republic.

TSS: How do you perceive the issue of corruption in the triangular client-lawyer-judge relationship?

ŠH: This is not a triangular relationship, but rather the client-lawyer relationship. Lawyers certainly know which of the judges work through legal arguments, and which are the so-called "arrangers".

I repeat, I do not want to insult honest lawyers. Corruption must be revealed at the level of the police and the prosecution. I believe that instead of the con games of the past, the time has come to apply sense and high level of police professionalism.

TSS: In which areas will the Ministry of Justice systemically improve the work of the judiciary under your leadership?

ŠH: Firstly, in the acceleration of the proceedings, in order to have a just verdict in an appropriate time. Then the electronic system (for tracking and assigning cases), as well as the control from heads of court senates. And of course, I want to get all the ducks in a row in the legislation, but that has been underway for a decade.

TSS: What is the state's role in securing legal aid for the needy? What role does the Centre for Legal Aid currently play, and how do you see it in the future?

ŠH: This issue is solved in criminal law, as well as in civil law - thanks to the centre you mentioned. I see it opening branches in the poorest regions in the future. We have been working on this intensely. We are negotiating with the local administrations to lease rooms for one crown. We do not wish to have pastel colours and invoices for Sk400,000 for an architect who decides where the desk will stand, and similar frauds.

TSS: What do you consider the biggest problems in the prison system, and what is your strategy for solving them?

ŠH: Firstly, it is the human rights and international treaties, which we have signed. So we have to prepare for improving the living space, while meeting strict safety criteria. A case of false "official" employment was finally uncovered, where two prisoners were officially employed part-time to make one job.

In the past, the achievements of the prison system were great statistically, but the reality was quite different. Now, it is great overall. We have the best results in the V4 Group, and maybe even within more EU countries.

TSS: What is your opinion about the way the public service is becoming professional? Which level of jobs should be held by political nominees, and which levels of the public service should be professional?

ŠH: Much has been said about this. We must act now. I gave chances to young people - professionals who came to the ministry as early as during the terms of Ján Čarnogurský and Lipšic. They were not political nominees, but experts who worked for so-called celebrities and media stars. Now they have a chance, and they work hard and well. We fired the slackers.

TSS: Do you consider the law on free access to information, passed in 2000 and supported mainly by then-MP Ján Langoš, justified? Do you intend to cut the requirements for public offices to give information, as many Slovak non-governmental organisations fear?

ŠH: I respect the right to information, but unfortunately, it is also misused very often to hassle offices. For example, Lipšic's former advisor wanted to publish the wages of all ministry officials, even former ones, to such an extent and in such a form that it was not possible to provide that information under the current law. We did not even have such a list. If she was interested in an individual employee, she could have asked directly, and not through various deceptions.

Recently, a citizen asked about wage details of a specific ministry official, and it was no problem to answer that. Basically, we try to publish everything, including trials, on the web. We have improved the system, and we provide full services for citizens and journalists alike. It is just a matter of time until all court verdicts will be on the internet, and that will make the work of our judges better.

TSS: Do you have a favourite philosopher, and if so, which of his ideas do you remember? Or, what is your personal credo?

ŠH: To first be just, and only then be generous. Justice and power have to be united, so that justice becomes power and power becomes justice.

My favourite philosopher is I.F. Dostoyevsky, who said that it is very difficult to analyse anyone, and even more difficult to judge them. So every judge should first judge himself.

TSS: Which one of your cases do you like to recall?

ŠH: There have been more of the other type, where I found grave flaws, either with police, or judges, or prosecutors.

A phys ed teacher, oboe player, theologian or construction engineer hardly ever becomes a good investigator. I say openly that this government has inherited a grave professional crisis in the investigation department. In the 1990s, murders, for example, were investigated much more promptly and better. Today, I have the impression that criminal cases are built on the most disreputable witnesses, as if the worst criminals were the best witnesses. In the EU, they have abandoned making deals with criminals, as this is where there is the most space for corruption. However, there are still really bright and educated police officials with legal and police education.

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