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The SIS: Neither secret nor a service to democracy

FILMMAKER Mario Homolka was shooting a documentary in early December when he got a nasty shock - a threatening call from a man claiming to be a former member of the Slovenská Informačná Služba (SIS), Slovakia's infamous secret service.
In the call, a man calling himself Ľuboš K. demanded that Leitner not use footage he had shot of Ľuboš K.'s house for the documentary, mentioning details of the film maker's personal life and "ostentatiously" adding that he was "a professional".
Leitner's film project - a reconstruction of the 1995 kidnapping of the former president's son, Michal Kováč Jr - spotlights one of the most formative events of the country's first decade of independence. The crime, according to the statements of witnesses and participants in the kidnapping, was carried out by a group of SIS officers that included Ľuboš K., and was part of an overall campaign to discredit democratic forces.


REMIÁŠ's BMW remains a symbol of terror.
photo: Nový Čas

FILMMAKER Mario Homolka was shooting a documentary in early December when he got a nasty shock - a threatening call from a man claiming to be a former member of the Slovenská Informačná Služba (SIS), Slovakia's infamous secret service.

In the call, a man calling himself Ľuboš K. demanded that Leitner not use footage he had shot of Ľuboš K.'s house for the documentary, mentioning details of the film maker's personal life and "ostentatiously" adding that he was "a professional".

Leitner's film project - a reconstruction of the 1995 kidnapping of the former president's son, Michal Kováč Jr - spotlights one of the most formative events of the country's first decade of independence. The crime, according to the statements of witnesses and participants in the kidnapping, was carried out by a group of SIS officers that included Ľuboš K., and was part of an overall campaign to discredit democratic forces.

Over seven years later, the kidnapping has yet to reach trial, due largely to amnesties issued by former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar. But as Leitner's experience shows, the abduction and other politically motivated SIS crimes remain unhealed wounds, still with the power to arouse passion among the perpetrators and those who would see them face justice.

The most absurd moment

Even with the passage of years, police records documenting SIS crimes seem scarcely believable. From international destabilisation to a domestic contract killing, from theft, fraud and sabotage to gross abuse of power, the Slovak secret service harried opponents of the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar regime as if the 1989 revolution had never happened.

For the SIS, indeed, the fall of communism did not mean an end to communist tactics, as many top SIS officers had served in the pre-1989 ŠtB, the Czechoslovak secret police. But as records now show, it was more the political management of the service than its former communist staffers that was responsible for the worst abuses.

For many, the history of the SIS properly began in January 1990 with the appointment of Mečiar, a hitherto unknown lawyer for a glass factory, to the post of Slovak interior minister.

Slovakia's first post-1989 prime minister, Milan Čič, remembered that the committee formed to interview candidates for the job had been impressed with Mečiar's "alertness, knowledge of the area and some of his conceptual ideas," and had "unanimously and without discussion appointed Vladimír Mečiar."

That moment was seen through different eyes by justice Ján Drgonec, however, who served on the Constitutional Court from 1993-2000.

"The holding of a job competition for the Interior Ministry post was probably the most absurd moment in our post-November history," Drgonec said for Ľuba Lesna's 2001 book Unos Demokrácie (The Kidnapping of Democracy).

"At the same time, it tragically influenced the development of our state until the present. People from various parties admit they were impressed by Mečiar's knowledge of the activities of the Interior Ministry. To this day I am still amazed by their incredible naivete. It never even occurred to them that a person with detailed knowledge of the work of the police and secret structures probably had had some connection to these structures [during communism]."

From the outset, the rules applying to the ŠtB, which was disbanded in early 1990, were virtually ignored in Slovakia. All 20-30,000 ŠtB agents were to have been vetted by a special commission, and if found not to have committed offences while in uniform, were to be assigned to the Office for the Protection of Constitutionality and Democracy, the precursor of the SIS. Those who didn't pass were to be fired.

Only it didn't happen quite like that - many ŠtB members who were supposed to be fired were instead put on a list of "temporarily unassigned personnel", and managed to work their way back into the service. Many who were fired got tens of thousands of crowns in golden handshakes.

Attempts to assert the law were also resisted by top officials, who gradually formed a cadre protecting the old order. Federal Interior Minister Ján Langoš in December 1991 fired the head of the Office for the Protection of Constitutionality and Democracy, who despite his orders had kept on several thousand ŠtB agents. Shortly thereafter the deputy head, Jaroslav Svěchota, left as well.

Svěchota had joined the ŠtB in 1961, but left after the events of 1968. He had been appointed in January 1990 as head of the 12th ŠtB division, a sort of federal secret service for Slovakia containing several hundred agents.

In the summer of 1990, Langoš's deputy minister, Ján Ruml, had started disciplinary proceedings against Svěchota for sending Mečiar written material from division 12. Mečiar bailed Svěchota out of trouble, and on August 15, 1990, made him deputy director of the Slovak Interior Ministry, which was responsible for administering ŠtB files.

At roughly the same time, Mečiar was allegedly securing former ŠtB files for his own purposes. The Defence and Security Committee of parliament, in a 1991-92 report, said that Interior Ministry official Leonard Čimo had on the orders of Interior Minister Vladimír Mečiar broken into the federal ŠtB headquarters in Trenčín, known as the Tiso Villa, on January 27, 1990.

Čimo, the committee alleged, had removed 18 files containing the records of ŠtB collaborators, taken these records back to Bratislava and handed them to Mečiar.

As the committee reported: "We must state with regret that materials stolen from the ŠtB archives played an important role on the Slovak political scene after January 1990 in the struggle for power. Over 120 files are missing from the archives, while important documents and other files were destroyed on the order of General [and ŠtB chief Alojz] Lorenc..." The ŠtB files were later illegally transferred under the jurisdiction of the SIS.

Vladimír Mečiar, however, said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator in 2001 that the theft of the files had never taken place. "It was just a myth dreamed up by Čimo, and about which he told lies," the former PM said. "It was at a time when elections were approaching and it looked as if I would win a majority in parliament. That's why such myths were created and accepted as the truth."

Neither strong in character nor impartial

Mečiar did in fact win elections in the summer of 1992, and went on as prime minister to lead Slovakia out of the Czechoslovak federation.

One of the first things the independent state required was a security service. Mečiar initially proposed for the job of SIS director Ivan Lexa, son of a former prominent communist. President Michal Kováč, however, refused to accept Lexa for the post, just as he was later to reject Lexa's nomination as privatisation minister, because he judged Lexa to be neither "strong in character nor impartial". Kováč alleged that Mečiar used Lexa to carry out "dirty, unethical assignments."

Instead of Lexa, former state investigator Vladimír Mitro was appointed to lead the SIS, holding the post until resigning in the spring of 1995 following Mečiar's third election triumph. Mitro explained that Mečiar had asked him to do things against the law, such as putting journalists under surveillance.

At the same time, the Mečiar government changed the SIS law, taking for itself the president's power to appoint the head of the service, and clearing the way for Ivan Lexa to take the position. Lexa was joined by Jaroslav Svěchota as head of counter-espionage.

The most abused organ

What happened in the three years that followed turned Slovak society back towards the days of totalitarian rule, with the SIS becoming a tool in the hands of the Mečiar government to intimidate, and allegedly even eliminate, opponents.

The gravamen of the charges can be found in a 1999 report by Vladimír Mitro, who had recently returned as SIS director following the defeat of the Mečiar government in September 1998 elections.

"The Slovak Information Service, following the arrival of new leadership in spring 1995, became perhaps the most abused state organ. Its social and moral degradation in the eyes of the public gradually reached the point that it was compared to the ŠtB from the previous regime. It damaged not only itself as an organ of the state, but also the interests of Slovakia."

Lexa wasted little time in attacking Mečiar's political enemies, journalist Ľuba Lesna wrote, producing in May 1995 a report for Mečiar on ways of getting rid of Michal Kováč (having him resign, recalling him or cutting his term or powers).

The SIS report discussed the need to intensify media attacks and investigate members of Kováč's family to get him to resign. Failing that, the service would try to persuade at least 10 opposition MPs to vote with government on Kováč's recall by parliament, which meant "finding out their individual privatisation interests" as well as digging into their pasts and their families to find something that could be used as blackmail.

As the most fertile ground for staging an attack against Kováč the SIS seized on a Slovak firm called Technopol, which had paid $2.3 million to a Dutch company for textiles that never arrived. The service secured a statement by a man charged with fraud in the case, Peter Krylov, that the president's son, Michal Kováč Jr, had taken part in the scam. A Munich court issued an international warrant for Kováč Jr's arrest in 1994 after Government Office head Anna Nagy paid a week's visit to the city.

On August 31, 1995, Kováč Jr was seized by a group of four men, bundled into a car, beaten up, given electric shocks to his penis, forced to drink over a litre of scotch, and then ferried in the trunk of a car across the Austrian border. He was left unconscious on the back seat of the vehicle in front of a police station in Hainburg, Austria, where the Austrian police found him.

After taking evidence from the Slovak president, however, and reading the confession by SIS officer Oskár Fegyveres of having participated in the kidnapping, the Austrian authorities refused to hand Kováč Jr over to Germany for trial. Instead they returned him to Slovakia, saying it appeared a Slovak state organ had been behind the abduction.

Back in Bratislava, two police investigators had already been fired for coming to the conclusion that the SIS had carried out the kidnapping. A third, Jozef Čiž, shelved the case in 1996 for lack of evidence.

Hands-off approach

Before the matter was closed, however, a former police officer named Róbert Remiáš was killed in a car bombing on April 30, 1996. Remiáš, the best friend of Oskár Fegyveres, had been acting as a go-between with Fegyveres in hiding, bringing Fegyveres' statements to the authorities.

When police specialists were called in to investigate the bombing in the dark and the rain, according to police specialist Tibor Šmid, they had trouble finding clues because they were called away from the scene before they had finished. By the time another team was sent in during the morning rush hour, much evidence had been destroyed.

Šmid said that throughout the investigation he was hampered and harrassed by his superiors, and was ultimately forced to leave his job. Although early lab tests showed the explosion might have been caused by the car's butane tank, he said, later tests indicated explosives; after he divulged these results he was visited by his direct superior and told "to take my hands off it and leave things as they were."

Šmid recalled that he had complained to the director of the criminal-expertise institute, but to no avail. The leadership of the institute also rejected a request that tests be run to determine whether rain could account for their failure to find explosives residue on the fragments of the car. When, in June 1996, the lab determined it had been an explosion that killed Remiáš, the institute did not release the results even to the case investigators. After versions of the report appeared in the press, however, the management finally gave the go-ahead for its publication.

Several years later, Mitro's report was to confirm what many suspected following the release of Šmid's findings: "There exists much evidence suggesting that the SIS was behind the death of Robert Remiáš".

Mitro's evidence included the following: the SIS had had Remiáš under aggressive surveillance since November 1995; they did not document their surveillance activities on the day Remiáš was killed; two SIS agents gave false statements to police on the instructions of surveillance chief Gejza Valjent; their false statements were authorised beforehand by Ivan Lexa.

After Remiáš was killed, Mitro wrote, the SIS intensified its efforts to locate Fegyveres abroad and silence him. Svěchota sent five counter-espionage agents to Gdansk, where, after following MP Milan Kňažko and Kováč Jr lawyer Ján Havlat, they located Fegyveres and informed SIS central.

"Jaroslav Svěchota decided that the members of the group would come home and the leaders stay, awaiting the arrival of another team or people," the Mitro report found. "But because the group was convinced Fegyveres was to be killed, the entire group decided to return to Bratislava on the excuse they had run out of money."

True change to take decades

While the Remiáš murder and the Kováč kidnapping are still regarded as the gravest offences committed by the SIS and its leadership, the Mitro report and others now document a host of other offences including: the theft of weapons, money and surveillance equipment; the production of false identity documents (a cache of over 1,000 false passports was found in 1999); the following of journalists and politicians; illegal surveillance; direct cooperation with the criminal underworld, and the use of underworld killers in the Remiáš murder; a botched sting operation to embarrass the bishop of Banská Bystrica; and several plots to destabilise governments in the region and complicate their entry to Nato and the EU.

In 1999, Svěchota, in confessing to helping organise the Kováč Jr kidnapping under the authority of Ivan Lexa and the "conceptual leadership" of Mečiar, said that steering Slovakia away from western integration, by creating the impression of domestic political chaos, might in fact have been the guiding motive for the crimes.

For Justice Drgonec, however, the story of the SIS was merely a chapter in a long book describing Slovakia's agonising transition from communism to democracy. "Slovakia is still far from a legal state, and I think this is going to last for some time," he said. "Our culture is so deformed that everyone, whether individuals or the state itself, tries to avoid observing rules they regard as uncomfortable."

For Lesna, who with film maker Homolka was the object of Ľuboš K.'s recent threats, the wounds of the past will not be healed until the SIS's crimes are properly investigated and the past disavowed.

"It was precisely our neglect to take a principled stand against the guilt of former secret agents that created the basis for a new secret service that, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, began again in Slovakia to practice state terrorism," she wrote.

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