THINNER but unfazed, Ivan Lexa flew home July 18.
Lexa emerged from a commercial flight at Bratislava airport on July 18, two years and eight days after fleeing the country. He faces charges including fraud, corruption, theft, sabotage, aiding and abetting criminals, kidnapping and armed robbery.
Acting on information from Slovak police, South African special forces arrested Lexa on July 14 at a pleasure resort in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. Several days later, as South Africa agreed to deport him as an illegal immigrant, he was flown to Slovakia from Johannesburg through Zürich and handed over to Slovak Interpol by two South African Interpol agents.
After an identity check in Bratislava lasting about 40 minutes, Lexa was taken to Bratislava police headquarters in an armoured vehicle. He was scheduled to be interviewed by Bratislava district 1 regional court the following day, said Interior Ministry spokesman Karol Tonka. The court was to decide whether to keep Lexa in pre-trial custody within 72 hours.
News of Lexa's arrest revived hope that some of the most infamous crimes committed under the controversial 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government, including the 1995 kidnapping of the former Slovak president's son, would finally be solved.
While the current Mikuláš Dzurinda government made investigation of such crimes and the punishment of offenders a key aim in 1998, the slowness of the courts, blanket amnesties issued by Mečiar and Lexa's disappearance in 2000 have stymied progress.
"Mr Lexa arrived without any luggage, and he's thinner," the Interior Ministry's Tonka said. "But it's him, I recognised him."
Lexa, 41, a member of parliament for the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), is a close ally of party leader Mečiar.
"The HZDS stands behind its MP Ivan Lexa," said HZDS deputy chair Rudolf Žiak at a press conference July 17, adding that the party hoped the courts would decide speedily and establish Lexa's innocence of the crimes he allegedly committed.
"The hour of truth is nearing," Žiak said.
The HZDS, along with Lexa's lawyers, insisted that parliament had to meet again to decide whether Lexa should be stripped of his MP's immunity from prosecution before he could be taken into custody.
However, government officials said that parliament had already given this approval in April 1999, when Lexa was taken into custody for the first time. He was released after three months when a judge said the reasons for holding him had expired, and once at liberty fled the country.
Attorney General Milan Hanzel told the daily paper Hospodársky denník that immunity was not a barrier, and that it was simply up to the judge "to weigh the reasons for custody".
Hanzel added that a few months from now he envisaged Lexa "attending many court proceedings".
At Bratislava airport Ľudovít Hlbočan, one of Lexa's lawyers, told journalists that Slovak and South African authorities had disregarded the fact his client had been called to appear before the South African Supreme Court on July 18, where Lexa was to see a judge regarding his arrest.
"I therefore consider his escort in co-operation between South African and Slovak authorities to be a kidnapping," Hlbočan said.
Prior to Lexa's return, another of his lawyers, Svetozár Chabada, said he did not think that Lexa's flight from the country would influence the judge to keep him locked up this time.
"Nobody told him he couldn't leave the country. When nobody tells you this, then you simply go wherever you want," said Chabada, explaining that Lexa's departure had not been an attempt to escape justice.
But Bratislava regional court deputy chief justice Tibor Kubík said Lexa's flight would be "strong grounds for approving custody".
The arrest moved PM Mikuláš Dzurinda to call it proof that "law and order are being pushed through". However, with national elections just two months away, Lexa's supporters have accused the cabinet, particularly Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), of using the arrest to improve their image with the electorate.
The HZDS's Žiak, meanwhile, has said Lexa's return could even help the HZDS. "Such tiny problems can help us to mobilize our strengths," Žiak said, before adding a comment on the slimmer appearance of the formerly portly Lexa.
"I think he looks more youthful. It did him good to lose some weight."