Following 40 hours of discussion in a four-day emotionally charged session of parliament, deputies voted to strip former Interior Minster Gustáv Krajči of the immunity he enjoys as a member of parliament and allow his prosecution for marring a 1997 national referendum.
Krajči is suspected of abusing his powers in May 1997 as an Interior Minister in the third cabinet of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar by omitting a question on direct presidential elections from a referendum ballot and penning the three questions on NATO membership in a way which purposely cast entrance into the western military alliance in a negative light.
Eighty-three of the 135 deputies present February 24 chose to lift the immunity clause. The vote was split largely along party lines, with Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and other opposition members voting to allow the immunity to stand, and only one government deputy voting against lifting his immunity.
Krajči, who remains a HZDS deputy, is the first to be stripped of immunity in the five-year history of Slovakia as an independent nation. The historic session held the attention of the public for a month, beginning on February 1 when the Interior Ministry officially announced it would ask the Parliament to lift Krajči's immunity.
The debate has been rancorous, with a massive anti-government campaign being waged by Mečiar's HZDS party and its partner in the current opposition, the far-right Slovak National Party. Some voters have joined in; on February 23, some 300 HZDS fans gathered in front of the parliament building in Bratislava to support Krajči and his party mates.
For some of the protesters, the Krajči issue was tied with their feeling that control of the government had been lost to the nation's 11% Hungarian minority, which is represented in the current ruling coalition.
"It's a shame when Hungarians rule over Slovaks again. I can remember how it was in the 1950's, and now when they are going to prosecute Mr. Krajči, it will start all over again," shouted one elderly man at the rally. After three hours of whistling, cursing and drinking tea with rum, the crowd was dispersed by 60 policemen who arrived to quiet the disturbance.
Krajči was also alleged to have illegally granted his former state secretary Ladislav Polka a salary bonus worth over 130,000 Sk, but in a separate vote the parliament elected to allow his immunity to stand in the case.
The actual debate over the immunity issue started on February 18, two days after the Parliamentary Mandate and Immunity Committee recommended to parliament that Krajči be stripped of his immunity, as the February 1 appeal from police investigators had requested.
Over 40 deputies signed up to make a speech during the debate, but due to the length of their comments and the many interruptions that occured, only 18 were able to speak during the first three days. HZDS deputies slowed the session by registering 450 comments on other deputies' speeches, as well as whistling and heckling the speakers. Ján Cuper, the HZDS's legal expert, registered 34 remarks alone.
"[The debate] is an undignified and nasty theatre demonstrating the poverty of Slovak politics," said Róbert Fico, a deputy for the former communist SDĽ party, on Rádio Twist two days into the session.
The HZDS deputies used their comments largely to ignite passions in parliament, and occasionally descended to making verbal attacks.
"I can't see anything else in your eyes but a desire, so to speak, to see the heads of the current opposition chopped off under a guillotine," said HZDS deputy Roman Hofbauer to coalition deputies.
Coalition deputies criticised the opposition for hampering the session, saying that parliament was not there to decide on Krajči s guilt or innocence, but only on removing a procedural obstacle to allow investigation and an independent court decision on the case.
"I don't know why you're so scared when [parliament] gives someone a chance to defend his innocence in front of an independent court," said Peter Weiss, an SDĽ deputy.
To shorten the marathon discussion, the coalition deputies asked Constitutional Committee Chairman Pavol Hrušovský for an explanation of the order of debate. Hrušovský said that the order allows each deputy only one comment related to the latest speech.
But the opposition fiercely reacted to such an interpretation, calling it the pinnacle of arrogance and the end of democracy in Slovakia.
"If some deputies had rope in their hands, they would just hang the former minister (Krajči)," said Tibor Cabaj, chairman of the HZDS parliamentary caucus.
Krajči himself said he was being victimised by the political agenda of the government, which was bent on punishing the former Mečiar government, which lost heavily in the September 1998 national election.
"My biggest fault was that I was a minister in Mečiar's government," Krajči said, adding that because of the political situation he could not expect fair treatment in the current debate.
Underneath the hysteria surrounding the session, however, lie some very serious charges. By printing and distributing invalid ballots with only three manipulated NATO questions and no direct presidential election question, the government reported, Krajči s ministry caused 2 million Sk damage to the state. A Constitutional Court verdict from February 1998 has already ruled that Krajči violated the basic rights of Slovak citizens during the botched referendum.
But in March 1998, having inherited some presidential powers from outgoing President Michal Kováč, Mečiar granted an amnesty to anyone involved in the referendum and the notorious 1995 kidnapping of the President Kováč's son. The amnesties prevented legal proceedings from being launched against those involved in either case.
In December 1998, new Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda reopened the investigation of the cases by revising the terms of Mečiar s amnesties.
Parliament is still due to discuss the case of Ivan Lexa, the former head of the secret service (SIS) under Mečiar. Lexa is accused of involving the SIS in a variety of illegal activities, including the Kováč Jr. kidnapping. While the Interior Ministry announced on February 1 that it would ask for immunity to be lifted from both Kracji and Lexa, the investigator in charge of Lexa's case has not yet delivered his recommendation to parliament.