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EDITORIAL

Roma torture case: A judicial challenge

After four years and millions of crowns invested, the state's murder case against convicted extortionist Mikuláš Černák collapsed in a heap on October 5. A Banská Bystrica court had little option but to find the defendant not guilty, largely because of what presiding judge Ľubomír Samuel called "unprecedented" lapses in police work on the case.
A quick summary - Černák walked into a police station in late 1997 to voluntarily answer murder charges for the kidnapping and killing of Polish businessman Grzegor Szymanek. The Banská court mentioned above duly sentenced him to jail for 15 years in early 1999, largely on the basis of testimony from a witness to the murder, Alexander Horváth. The court also gave him eight years for extortion.
Following the verdict, while Černák's appeal was being considered by the Supreme Court, the case started to unravel. First, Horváth recanted his testimony, whereupon the police released a recording of a conversation in which Horváth's lawyer urged him to say, in exchange for Sk10 million, that Černák was not the real murderer. The recording was judged inadmissible as evidence.

After four years and millions of crowns invested, the state's murder case against convicted extortionist Mikuláš Černák collapsed in a heap on October 5. A Banská Bystrica court had little option but to find the defendant not guilty, largely because of what presiding judge Ľubomír Samuel called "unprecedented" lapses in police work on the case.

A quick summary - Černák walked into a police station in late 1997 to voluntarily answer murder charges for the kidnapping and killing of Polish businessman Grzegor Szymanek. The Banská court mentioned above duly sentenced him to jail for 15 years in early 1999, largely on the basis of testimony from a witness to the murder, Alexander Horváth. The court also gave him eight years for extortion.

Following the verdict, while Černák's appeal was being considered by the Supreme Court, the case started to unravel. First, Horváth recanted his testimony, whereupon the police released a recording of a conversation in which Horváth's lawyer urged him to say, in exchange for Sk10 million, that Černák was not the real murderer. The recording was judged inadmissible as evidence.

Without its star witness, the Supreme Court returned the case for retrial to Banská.

During the retrial, the following was disclosed about the quality of the evidence amassed by police: first, Szymanek's fingers, which obviously were needed to match the prints police had in their possession and establish the identity of the corpse, were somehow destroyed; then the fingerprints themselves were lost; Szymanek's dental records did not match the dental profile of the fingerless corpse; Szymanek's wife said Černák had not kidnapped her husband; examination of the exhumed grave showed that some bones were a good 30 centimetres (one foot) from the rest of the corpse, meaning that someone had been mucking about at the site after the body was buried.

"We ruled according to the best of our knowledge and conscience," said judge Samuel. "The destruction of the sole piece of evidence before the legal conclusion of the case is without analogy."

It's often the courts in Slovakia that bear the brunt of criticism of the country's legal system, and rightly so. One only has to remember court decisions like the one in 1999 freeing Ivan Lexa from pre-trial custody, where he had been awaiting a court process on his conduct of state terrorism while at the head of the secret service. Lexa paused only to smirk before he vanished across the state border, never to be seen again.

Let's also not forget the decision by the Constitutional Court to halt proceedings against Lexa lieutenant Jaroslav Svěchota for organising the kidnapping of the former Slovak president's son. Or a decision last week by Supreme Court justice Jozef Štefanko (yes, the one who hacked his way into his Justice Ministry flat with an axe in 2000), who ruled that the Deposit Protection Fund was not the main creditor of the failed banks whose depositors it had repaid. That pearl of judicial wisdom led to the quickest passage of a legal amendment in Slovakia's history (a morning drafting by cabinet, an afternoon approval by parliament).

But one has to wonder in the Černák case about the role of the state prosecutor - knowing that the police had managed to bungle or destroy any decent evidence against Černák, why didn't she send the case back for further investigation rather than taking it to court? And why did she appeal to the Supreme Court, which has already once before said the evidence is insufficient? Doubtless there are legal subtleties here beyond the grasp of laymen, but it does seem rather a waste of time and money.

Indeed, far too little criticism for judicial system snafus is levied at state prosecutors in Slovakia. Michal Vaľo, the Mečiar-era attorney general, was of course the king of the wrong 'uns, and is another who has vanished; he helped to snuff investigations of the Kováč kidnapping, and launched the investigation of Lexa's jailhouse living conditions that led to his release by the courts.

This past week we've had confirmation by the Attorney General's Office that Mečiar will not be charged with abuse of power for illegally paying millions of crowns in bonuses to his cabinet ministers.

We've also had confirmation that former counterintelligence boss Rudolf Žiak, now the shadow foreign minister with Mečiar's HZDS party, will not be charged with sabotage for his documented attempts to create complications in the Nato acceptances of Slovakia's three regional neighbours.

It's all of a piece. So far, the combined work of the police, prosecutors and the courts have not yielded a single jail sentence for high-profile crimes committed under the 1994 to 1998 Mečiar government. Small wonder that Slovaks have lost faith in justice both as a system and a concept.

There is still time to restore some of that faith. A Banská Bystrica investigator has laid charges against seven police for torture in the July beating death of a Roma man; if convictions result, and significant jail time is served (the men face 8 to 15 years), Slovakia will be seen to have taken an important step forward in coming to terms with issues like racism and justice for all. But if the legal system again conspires to lose, destroy, mishandle or suppress crucial evidence, it will only strengthen society's impression that anarchy and graft still carry the day.

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