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EDITORIAL

The evidence is in: It's the courts, stupid

IN ANNIE Proulx' novel The Shipping News, criminals appearing before Newfoundland courts keep tearing their clothes off in front of the judge to encourage not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts. Their behaviour becomes tediously predictable for the reporters of the Gammy Bird newspaper, although not wholly unamusing.
Something similar, although very unfunny, has been happening in Slovakia. Judges keep sending airtight cases back to prosecutors and police "for further investigation" because they're either afraid to rule or have been paid not to.


ČERNÁK, left, is now a happily freed extortionist.
photo: Plus 7 dní

IN ANNIE Proulx' novel The Shipping News, criminals appearing before Newfoundland courts keep tearing their clothes off in front of the judge to encourage not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts. Their behaviour becomes tediously predictable for the reporters of the Gammy Bird newspaper, although not wholly unamusing.

Something similar, although very unfunny, has been happening in Slovakia. Judges keep sending airtight cases back to prosecutors and police "for further investigation" because they're either afraid to rule or have been paid not to.

The men appearing before the Slovak courts, however, are not petty criminals but Really Bad Guys, the kind that any society wants off the streets and locked up for as long as possible.

Among all of the tasks facing the new cabinet, encouraging the courts to deliver sensible verdicts in a reasonable time is the most pressing. Just as former US president Bill Clinton used to have a sign on his desk saying "it's the economy, stupid," the parties forming the next cabinet should have a similar mantra regarding the nation's judges tattooed on their foreheads.

For those who doubt the gravity of the problem, here's a digest of the last two weeks of Slovak court news.

September 25 - The daily paper Sme reports that two Supreme Court judges who released former secret service boss Ivan Lexa from pre-trial custody last month received over Sk80,000 ($1,900) bonuses from Supreme Court Chief Justice Štefan Harabin, while a third court justice who voted against the release received nothing.

After being discovered hiding from an international arrest warrant in South Africa and extradited to Slovakia, Lexa was jailed in July and faced 10 criminal charges from his 1995-1998 tenure at the head of the Slovenská Informačná Služba (SIS).

However, Supreme Court judges Harold Stiffel and Štefan Minarík ruled August 15 that the lower court judge who had approved Lexa's pre-trial custody had been biased.

The bonuses paid to the judges were decided by Harabin, who comes up for re-election this December, having been appointed by parliament under the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government.

September 24 - A Trenčín district court judge rules that reputed underworld boss Mikuláš Černák of Banská Bystrica qualifies for parole after serving half of his 8.5-year sentence for extortion. The decision is appealed to a higher court by a district state prosecutor, and thus does not immediately take effect.

September 19 - Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský suspends from duty a judge whose gross clerical error led in early September to the freeing of seven accused killers in east Slovakia's Košice.

The judge, Dušan Kán, is also under investigation by police for his failure to request an extension of pre-trial custody for the seven men, who are believed to be part of a gang under murdered crime boss Karol Kolárik.

September 19 - Miroslav R., the Poprad district judge arrested in July 1999 after a routine police check found 18 doses of 50-per cent pure cocaine in his car and an illegally owned gun, has his case again put off after he fails to show for trial. Over three years after being arrested, he has not spent a day in jail and has not received a final verdict.

September 18 - The burning of a VW Passat in east Slovakia's Košice brings the total in that city to four cars that have been set alight following the release in early September from pre-trial custody of seven Košice-area men charged with a 1998 gangland killing.

September 17 - Over 16 months after first receiving the case, a Bratislava region court judge returns charges of alleged asset stripping at the SIS secret service under the 1995-1998 tenure of Ivan Lexa to a state prosecutor for further investigation.

The case involves the alleged setting-up of companies through which the SIS leadership channeled millions of crowns in state funds.

State prosecutor Michal Serbin appeals the ruling by the judge, Margita Horná.

Of the 10 charges Lexa faces from his time at the SIS, including kidnapping, sabotage and armed robbery, almost all cases have been returned to prosecutors for further investigation, through what Serbin says is both fear and corruption among judges ruling on cases involving the well-connected Lexa.

September 12 - A Bratislava region judge, Ján Jamrich, releases from pre-trial custody eight men accused of an extensive highway sticker fraud, and who are believed to belong to the criminal underworld group of Ľuboš Ferus in central Slovakia's Nitra.

The judge rules that the reasons for pre-trial custody had expired because, he alleges, police have made no progress in the case in the last two months.

Senior police officials deny the judge's accusations.

If there's one more "brief" that could be added to this scandalous and miserable list, it's a statement by John Goodish in the September 26 edition of the Hospodárske Noviny paper:

"We would welcome it if someone would finally clearly formulate a method of fighting the rampant corruption in the Slovak judicial sector."

That just about covers it. Slovakia has a massive problem with its courts, and the next government must tackle it before it does anything else.

This is one case that can't be sent back for further investigation. The evidence is overwhelming.

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