MOST of the freed accused killers were met by family and friends.
The men, who have been charged with the 1999 gang machete murder of an underworld figure in east Slovakia's Košice, tasted freedom on September 9 for the first time in almost three years. Most were picked up by family members and friends outside their Košice prison, vowing legal action against the state and journalists.
"We'll be visiting our lawyers today," said shaven-headed Marcel Brozman, wearing a sleeveless shirt exposing brawny arms, before stepping into a dark car with a young woman.
"This is just a ridiculous game," said short-haired fellow ex-detainee Ladislav Bata, who has previously acted as the group's unofficial spokesman.
Justice authorities expressed astonishment with the actions of the judge, Košice region court justice Dušan Kán, but said they planned to launch disciplinary action for negligence against both Kán and a senior court judge overseeing criminal cases.
Despite being warned several times by state prosecutors that a request for the extension of the men's two-year pre-trial custody had to be delivered to the Supreme Court, Kán for unknown reasons failed to do so.
BATA: It's all a game.
Slovakia's justice system has a reputation among its citizens for corruption, with surveys repeatedly showing that about two-thirds of respondents believe bribery and influence-peddling to be rife in the courts.
The release of the seven accused murderers comes only a month after the Supreme Court released former secret service boss Ivan Lexa from custody following his extradition from South Africa on 10 criminal charges.
Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský at the time called the Lexa decision "encouragement for criminals of every stripe," and doubted the Supreme Court's explanation that a lower court judge had been biased in jailing Lexa. "They decided beforehand what they were going to do," he said.
Asked whether he believed an explanation that Košice's Kán had been too overburdened with cases to notice the impending expiry of the alleged murderers' custody term, Čarnogurský asked "who today in Slovakia is not overburdened [with work]? Let them come forward."
As the jailed men returned to private life, fears increased of a renewed turf war between rival Košice gangs.
The men are accused of luring Miroslav Stojka, a member of a gang led by the jailed Dušan Borženský, from a lakeside resort restaurant in Košice on November 27, 1999, and hacking him from behind with machete blows to the head, back and arm. They then shot him in the stomach. Stojka died hours later in hospital.
In apparent retaliation, members of the group led by Borženský, alias Borža, are alleged to have machine-gunned local crime boss Karol Kolárik to death on December 16, 1999. The Borža group members remain, for the time being, in pre-trial custody.
The 1999 murders capped a tense period of underworld killing in Košice that had been sparked by the September 1997 murders in Bratislava of Košice crime boss Róbert Holub and his associate, Štefan Fabian. Borženský and Kolárik, both of whom had served as lieutenants in Holub's operation, had later fought for control of mainly drugs and weapons smuggling in Košice, Slovakia's second largest city.
Despite the public outcry at the latest judicial decisions, foreign diplomats have expressed dismay with what they see as a descending spiral of accusations. European Parliament member Jan Marinus Wiersma said earlier this month that criticism by Slovak politicians of judges in the Lexa case was undermining public faith in the courts.
Čarnogurský, agreeing after Wiersma's warning that he would henceforth speak his mind "relatively abstractly", then told the nation's judges that if such controversial rulings or mistakes continued, they could forfeit both their independence from the state as well as any potential future salary increases.
"The Slovak justice system in the coming years will run the risk that problematic decisions by judges will arouse public feeling against them, and that the public consciousness in the coming years will demand restrictions on the independence of the judiciary and of course the slowing of any possible economic betterment for judges," he said in an interview for the Národna Obroda daily paper on September 9.
Other judicial officials were even more direct. Bratislava region prosecutor Michal Serbin, when asked if recent controversial decisions by judges could be blamed on bribery or their fear to issue verdicts in Mafia cases, said "the reason could also be professional incompetence".
He added, however, that Slovakia would one day have a reliable justice system.
"These cases can't be swept under the carpet. One day judges will be found with the courage to decide," he sa
16. Sep 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson