The Supreme Court on April 23 cleared Mikuláš Černák of the 1997 killing of Polish citizen Grzegorz Szymanek, upholding an earlier ruling by a regional court and ending a five-year legal process dogged by witness murders and recanted testimonies.
The verdict was greeted with dismay by some members of the legal community. "I heard his earlier testimony and I am convinced that Černák killed [Szymanek]," said Jozef Takáč, deputy attorney general, after the verdict was announced.
The ruling comes in the midst of a public police crackdown on organised crime that has seen 29 gangs broken up since October last year and the arrest of what police chiefs say are some of the biggest figures in the Slovak underworld.
Černák's acquittal of the murder has been seen by some legal experts as a defeat for those battling organised crime.
"The ruling is not a good one for this fight, even though it could be said that Černák's earlier conviction for lesser crimes is a success. Mistakes were made in the investigation and the handling of evidence so that it could not be used in court properly. For that, the police and investigators are to blame," Daniel Lipšic, a lawyer and former head of office at the Justice Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator.
In delivering the verdict Judge Peter Krajčovič ruled that although it was clear a murder had taken place it could not be proven that Černák, who is already serving an 8.5-year sentence for blackmail, had committed the crime.
"We cannot allow the creation of a general belief in society that Černák is a leader of a gang that commits crime. It has not been possible to prove any such thing," he summarised.
The Supreme Court also upheld the October 2001 rulings of a lower court clearing Černák and two alleged gang members, Andrej Ambróz and Jan Kán, of taking Szymanek hostage.
Černák was remanded in custody in 1997 after turning himself in, and by summer next year will have served two thirds of his sentence for blackmail. At that point he will be eligible for release on parole.
The five-year legal process had been clouded in controversy from its outset. Almost immediately after Černák was charged with blackmail two key witnesses to Szymanek's murder, Robert Holub and Štefan Fabián, were killed.
A year later an attempt to assassinate another witness, Alexander Horváth, was made. After Černák's conviction at a regional court in 2000 for the murder, Horváth changed his testimony, claiming the dead Fabián rather than Černák had killed Szymanek, and forcing the case back to the courts.
The prosecution team also came under fire for its handling of the case. At certain parts of court proceedings only one prosecution lawyer was present while the defendant had a number of attorneys representing him at hearings.
It also emerged during an appeal against the original conviction that evidence in the murder had been poorly handled - Szymanek's fingerprints were lost, the fingers of his body destroyed, dental records mismatched and videotapes of recanted testimonies not presented properly.
A former government official involved in the legal proceedings has already cast doubt on the evidence given at the trials. Former Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner has said he doubts if all the testimonies given were truthful.
However, Černák's attorney, František Hajdušovský, said after the court's ruling that justice had been served.
The Justice Ministry has not ruled out lodging an exceptional appeal against the ruling and is studying the files on the case. The ministry and the Attorney General have six months in which to lodge the appeal.
THE ČERNÁK CASE
August 1997: Grzegorz Szymanek is abducted by unknown criminals. Two alleged witnesses to Szymanek's suspected murder, Robert Holub and Štefan Fabián, are later killed.
December 1997: Černák is charged with blackmail.
Autumn 1998: Szymanek's body is found at a cottage in the Brezno district. Černák is charged with the murder and kidnapping. Černák is also charged with tax fraud and breach of provisions on trade of goods to foreign countries.
March 1998: Attempted assassination of a witness to the Szymanek murder, Alexander Horváth.
November 1999: Court proceedings begin against Černák.
January 2000: Banská Bystrica regional court convicts Černák of murder, two counts of blackmail and abduction. Černák is sentenced to 15 years in prison. He appeals the verdict.
February 2001: Alexander Horváth withdraws his testimony against Černák and accuses Štefan Fabián of the murder of Szymanek. Case is returned to regional court, but Černák is sentenced to eight and half years for blackmail.
October 2001: Banská Bystrica regional court clears Černák of murder and abduction.
April 2002: Supreme Court upholds regional court ruling.
29. Apr 2002 at 0:00 | Ed Holt