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Prosecution of Mečiar-era suspects ends with whimper

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's entourage came to the opening of the Slovak Month of Culture in New York at the beginning of February hoping to show off Slovakia in one of the world's biggest and most influential cities. Domestic and international media should have been clamouring for words from the PM on what his country had to offer the world.
Instead, Dzurinda found himself upstaged, the cameras and microphones straining to catch the words of a fugitive. Rudolf Žiak, charged with political sabotage while working for the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), was happily chatting away to the eager media masses at the same gatherings attended by the Slovak contingent.
The shadow Foreign Minister in the opposition 'shadow cabinet' of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), he had been sent to the US three months earlier on what his party said was a "business trip", and was charged while abroad.


Rudolf Žiak, charged with sabotage for his secret service work, is back.
photo: TASR

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's entourage came to the opening of the Slovak Month of Culture in New York at the beginning of February hoping to show off Slovakia in one of the world's biggest and most influential cities. Domestic and international media should have been clamouring for words from the PM on what his country had to offer the world.

Instead, Dzurinda found himself upstaged, the cameras and microphones straining to catch the words of a fugitive. Rudolf Žiak, charged with political sabotage while working for the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), was happily chatting away to the eager media masses at the same gatherings attended by the Slovak contingent.

The shadow Foreign Minister in the opposition 'shadow cabinet' of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), he had been sent to the US three months earlier on what his party said was a "business trip", and was charged while abroad.

Just over a month later, Žiak has been back in Slovakia, has met privately with HZDS leader and former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, and has seen all 15 charges of sabotage and disseminating alarmist information against him dropped.

He is not the only person connected with the former regime to see criminal proceedings against him cancelled, and some observers are now saying the government has utterly failed to bring high-profile criminals connected to the former Mečiar government to justice.

"The government is failing abysmally in its attempts to punish people like Žiak. Nothing has happened after all the new administration's time in government, and people are beginning to wonder why all these big fish are getting away," said Michal Vašečka, a sociologist at the Bratislava think-tank IVO.


Alexander Rezeš: case dropped.
photo: TASR

The fugitives

The crimes for which Žiak was charged were connected to SIS operations between 1995 and 1998 that were allegedly designed to undermine NATO integration ambitions in Slovakia and neighbouring states. They are believed to have been masterminded by the then-head of the SIS, Ivan Lexa, a man also accused of ordering the abduction of the then-President's son, Michal Kovae Jr., in 1995. Many of these accusations were contained in a secret SIS report presented to parliament in 1999, while other information has been uncovered by police investigations.

The charges against Žiak and two of his fellow former SIS operatives were dropped February 14 after district prosecutor Dušan Svaby ruled the formal charges did not meet the legal definition of sabotage and disseminating alarmist information. The prosecutor's office claimed that to prosecute Žiak, it would have to be proven that he had undertaken his actions in the knowledge that they were illegal. The Attorney General's office upheld the ruling.

The legal moves came almost simultaneously with a withdrawal of charges against Alexander Rezeš, former majority owner in east Slovak steel works VSŽ and Transport Minister under Mečiar for part of his 1994-1998 administration.


Ivan Lexa: Not returning soon.
photo: Spectator archives

Rezeš, arguably the most influential economic baron during the Mečiar era, was accused by the Dzurinda government of grossly mismanaging VSŽ to the point of near bankruptcy in 1999. Despite seeing his firm plunge into dire financial straits (from an annual profit of four billion crowns from 1994 to 1997 to a loss of 7.2 billion in 1998), he managed to find 100 million crowns ($2 million) to build a Spanish villa - a home he stayed at until late last year when he returned to Slovakia, to be charged with illegal reconstruction of a listed property in Banská Štiavnica in central Slovakia.

The charge, though not as serious as that of mismanagement, was dropped on the grounds that the house itself was not a listed property at all.

Frustration at the failure to bring the two men to justice was evidenced when Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner said after the two prosecutions had been abandoned: "Neither case was a failure. It was just a discovery of certain activities which, if not punishable, should lead us to regard these people, Žiak and company, as heroes of the Soviet Union."

Legal professionals also questioned the rulings. Ján Hrubala, attorney at the Centre for Environmental and Public Advocacy, said: "I do not have enough information to judge the case of Mr. Žiak. But the whole procedure looks dubious. Regarding the case of Mr. Rezeš, I have worked with some NGOs in Banská Štiavnica, and I do not agree with the decision to stop the investigation.

"To say whether this shows a certain degree of corruption, or if I and the investigator simply hold different opinions, is not my job," he continued. "I can only presume that justice for influential and rich people is different than justice for others."

He added, though: "Cases like this might show a failure of state offices to combat abuses of power by the rich. They may also provoke suspicion of corruption [when the charges are dropped]. On the other hand, theoretically they can show the independence of government bodies in that they are refusing to indulge in political revenge."

Constitutional problems

Former SIS head Ivan Lexa has also managed to escape justice, as no charges have been laid against him in connection with the Kovae Jr. kidnapping. Although amnesties were awarded by then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar in 1998 (In his capacity as acting President) to any person ever found to be involved in the abduction, as well as in a thwarted referendum on NATO in 1997, Dzrurinda cancelled the Mečiar amnesties on December 8, 1998, and Lexa then had the immunity he enjoyed from prosecution as a member of parliament (MP) stripped by his legislative peers. However, the investigation into his involvement in the abduction was stopped last year.

But following Dzurinda's amnesty negation, key court rulings on the constitutional legality of proceedings against once-amnestied suspects, or Lexa for his involvement in sabotage, have gone against the coalition, leaving Lexa without charges filed against him and, more importantly, outside Slovakia.

It emerged last summer that Lexa had fled the country, his whereabouts unknown. Slovak law states that charges can only be laid against a person if he or she has fully read the case compiled by police against them, an impossibility with the former SIS chief possibly on the other side of the globe.

He is unlikely to return. Lexa's lawyer, Juraj Trokan, told The Slovak Spectator March 13 that while they knew nothing of where the former SIS head may be, "there is no likelihood that he will return to Slovakia in the foreseeable future, and he does not see any reason to return. Mr. Lexa does not agree with the proceedings against him".

Rule of law undermined

The failure to convict Rezeš and the former SIS operatives, or to even lay charges in Lexa's case (Lexa has been charged in connection with crimes other than the sabotage and kidnapping) has, legal experts say, given a damaging signal to society which may be undermining trust in the judiciary and respect for the rule of law.

"These cases are really damaging because people lose their faith in law enforcement and these scoundrels are left unafraid of breaking the law," said Katarina Závacká, head of the Institute of State and Law at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

She also suggested that HZDS leader Mečiar had used his past powers as prime minister and his present contacts to ensure that some prosecutions were dropped.

"The charges against Rezeš and Žiak were dropped because Mečiar did many things ahead of time in accordance with the law, and with Rezeš, his case was narrowed only to the house in Banská Štiavnica, but not to with how [by what financial means] he acquired his property," she said.

Polls conducted by the Markant agency have shown that society's mistrust in the judiciary has deepened during the government's term, despite its pledges when coming to power to create respect in society for the rule of law and the organs enforcing that law. Between 1999 and 2000, distrust of the courts rose from 58% of the population to just under 63%. Sociologists argue that the government's poor record with punishing high-profile criminals has added to this mistrust.

"The level of trust among society for the judiciary is low. It is urgent to get some of these cases finished off and finally find people guilty of these things, which quite frankly everyone knows they're guilty of," said the IVO's Vašečka.

Illegal privatisations unpunished

While Lexa absconded to avoid facing charges and Žiak left for the US, one former privatiser, Karol Martinka, charged last year with fraud and mismanagement of the Pieš?any spa, has remained beyond the grasp of the law in neighbouring Austria.

The Dzurinda government launched a high-profile campaign in 1998 to examine, and ideally prosecute, people who had been involved in illegal privatisations. As well as bringing Martinka's alleged misdeeds to light, the investigations also led to charges against Vladimír Póor, an entrepreneur and former head of the HZDS regional party association in Trnava.

Póor was found to own a firm which illegally privatised a 46% stake in oil and gas firm Nafta Gbely in 1996. However, rather than bringing him to trial and submitting to a court judgement, the FNM reached an out-of-court settlement with the businessman in early 1999 to hand back the stake without further financial or legal penalty.

Although the FNM only pursued criminal prosecutions in cases it would likely win quickly, for fear of being sucked into expensive, drawn-out cases, the move at the time led justice activists to question the government's real commitment to fighting economic criminals connected to the former regime, questioning which continues today.

"If Martinka and Póor have done anything illegal they should have been prosecuted. If they have not been, then the responsibility [for failing to do so] rests only with the prosecutors and judges responsible," said Závacká.

Political stalling

Despite this, and the coalition's failure to have the amnesties of Gustav Krajči, Jaroslav Svichota (a former SIS department head under Lexa) and Lexa himself revoked, the government has said that it remains committed to proving it is enforcing the law. However, even its top ministers have admitted work still needs to be done.

"People need to be stimulated to work hard and honestly and not to break the law. Many problems still exist, of course, and for me one of the most serious is law enforcement - principally an independent and efficient judiciary," said Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ivan Mikloš. "We have to improve enforcement of the observance of formal laws, by putting more money into it and increasing the effectiveness of the court system."

People working within the government's National Fight Against Corruption Programme have agreed.

"A recent World Bank survey showed that the judiciary in Slovakia was corrupt. Our [Fight Against Corruption Programme] is designed to create a transparent environment. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that society must have respect for the law itself," said Mario Vireik, one of the coordinators of the programme.

Despite the apparent failures in bringing people to justice, police investigators are pleased with their progress since 1998.

"We do not consider these [Žiak and Rezeš] cases as failures. The police are one thing and the prosecutors and courts another," said Magda Krasulová, spokeswoman for the special investigation section of the Interior Ministry. "Also, Mr Lexa is charged with things in many cases, some of which are only waiting to go to court."

Regarding prosecutors, who serve under the Attorney General's office, critics have faulted the lack of aggression with which prosecutors approach their cases. Attorney General Milan Hanzel told The Slovak Spectator March 15 that "the criminal process [in Slovakia] is infamously complicated, expensive and bureaucratic", but blamed vagueness in the current law, and the complexity of the Žiak case, for the overall failure of the system to proceed against him.

But for the IVO's Vašečka, failures in such cases as that of Žiak, Rezeš, Krajči and Poór reveal unsavoury elements in the Slovak political and justice environments, rather than legal confusion.

"I wouldn't hesitate to say that there is massive corruption in the judiciary in Slovakia. But that is just one of the reasons why these cases haven't been followed through. The fact is that there is probably a lack of political will, and that Slovakia is just a small place with a lot of networking," he said.

"Among the judges, there are probably many who know people who know other people who may be connected with crimes. Among politicians, the will to proceed is simply not there. It is often said that the Democratic Left Party [SDĽ a leftist member of the ruling coalition] is the main party at fault in this. This is probably because they don't want to burn any bridges to future political alliances with the HZDS. And if they helped in the Lexa case, that would definitely be the end of all bridges."

Vašečka added, though, that despite the SDĽ's balking at certain prosecutions, the government would pay a far higher price if it doesn't make sure that Lexa is at least charged.

"I normally hesitate to say that Slovakia is far behind its neighbouring countries in dealing with crime, but in these cases it is. What Lexa did was very big, and I find it very, very strange that not even charges have been brought against him for this. Top politicians just don't seem to understand this."

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