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Amnesties a relic of feudal powers

The traditional power of the head of state to give out amnesties and individual pardons has existed on Slovak territory since medieval times, legal experts say. But since the establishment of independent Slovakia in 1993, the practice has come under fire as several of the pardons and/or amnesties have been seen as unjustified and contrary to the public interest.
The most glaring problem with the practice, says the Slovak Justice Ministry's head of office Daniel Lipšic, is that it imposes no restrictions on the president, who has the constitutional right to dispense pardons and/or amnesties "to anyone for any reason... even for no reason at all".


Olympic medal-winning canoeist Michal Martikán was granted a pardon after killing a pedestrian in his speeding car.
photo: TASR

The traditional power of the head of state to give out amnesties and individual pardons has existed on Slovak territory since medieval times, legal experts say. But since the establishment of independent Slovakia in 1993, the practice has come under fire as several of the pardons and/or amnesties have been seen as unjustified and contrary to the public interest.

The most glaring problem with the practice, says the Slovak Justice Ministry's head of office Daniel Lipšic, is that it imposes no restrictions on the president, who has the constitutional right to dispense pardons and/or amnesties "to anyone for any reason... even for no reason at all".

The issuance of pardons in Slovakia may soon be altered, however, if lawyers who say they should only be given in 'special cases' have their way. To fix some of the inconsistencies in the existing rules, a constitutional amendment is being drawn up, and should be discussed by cabinet this month.

If passed, Lipšic said, the reform would prevent the president from granting pardons to anyone involved in a case still before the courts.

The change would have prevented President Schuster from granting his most recent controversial pardon, one given last year to Michal Martikán, a Slovak Olympic canoeist who won gold in Atlanta in 1996 and took home a silver from Sydney last year.

Early last year, Martikán killed a pedestrian while driving his car, and was later found to have been speeding. He had his licence suspended for seven months, but violated the police order and continued driving anyway. The police responded with plans to put Martikán behind bars, until Schuster intervened and pardoned the canoeist on November 16. "He's an Olympic champion who has done a lot for the positive presentation of our country," Schuster explained to the press.

Lipšic reacted with outrage to the pardon, as did other Slovak citizens. "Every one of us, whether a minister, an Olympian or a person from the very smallest Slovak village, must be judged alike," he said. "This [pardon] is a bad signal to the citizens of this country, that someone can be granted a pardon just because he is a well known politician, sportsman, or artist."

In defence of his decision, Schuster told The Slovak Spectator on January 18 that because blood tests showed the victim had been under the influence of alcohol, "he [himself] was partly to blame for the accident. Mr. Martikán only minimally transgressed the speed limit."

The Martikán pardon outlined another flaw in the rules, said legal experts and law enforcement officials: while the president often seeks expert advice on his decisions, he need not follow the advice and in the end is not legally required to offer an explanation for his amnesties.

"It's completely up to the president's judgement," said Katarína Závacká, from the Institute of State and Law based in Bratislava. She added that the practice of giving amnesties and pardons was used in a "medieval way where the ruler - the president - has the unlimited power to pardon anyone he chooses, without being accountable to anyone or anything but his own conscience."

Such was the case in March 1998, when Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar used presidential powers to grant a sweeping amnesty to anyone involved in the 1995 kidnapping of former President Michal Kováč's son to Austria, or in the thwarting of the 1997 NATO referendum. Mečiar had inherited the amnesty power when Kováč senior's term in office ended without a replacement having been chosen; his use of the amnesty fueled protests around the country as the 1998 national elections drew nearer.

As two of the most notorious Mečiar-era privatisers await Schuster's decision on their recent amnesty requests, Slovak citizens express fears that once again the institition may be used to help the guilty evade justice. "Amnesties should be issued only in very special situations, not any time the president wants," said Bratislava citizen Ján Sodek. "And there should be some limits as to who can be pardoned or given amnesty. Right now it seems that anyone with good contacts can get a pardon."

Since coming to power in May, 1999, Schuster has issued 177 pardons, going against the advice of the Justice Ministry or attorney general in six of these cases. Former President Kováč gave out 84 pardons during his tenure from 1993 to 1998.

At the end of last year, Schuster said he'd been inspired by the Pope's appeal that country leaders show mercy on petty criminals, and pardoned 150 prisoners on December 15.

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