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Cabinet goes after the bad guys

JUST TWO days after the Slovak cabinet approved a complex plan for fighting crime, a police swat team raided the ostentatious birthday party of a 27-year-old Slovak underworld leader as part of its zero tolerance drive against mafia practices.
To the surprise of many, no immediate arrests resulted from the large-scale January 17 operation in the southern Slovak town of Šamorín. However, police insisted the mission had fulfilled its purpose, even though none of the alleged Slovak and Hungarian mafia members among the 150 guests were taken into custody.
It was a sign of things to come, as officials change tack in their fight against crime. Now, knowledge is just as important as putting criminals behind bars.

JUST TWO days after the Slovak cabinet approved a complex plan for fighting crime, a police swat team raided the ostentatious birthday party of a 27-year-old Slovak underworld leader as part of its zero tolerance drive against mafia practices.

To the surprise of many, no immediate arrests resulted from the large-scale January 17 operation in the southern Slovak town of Šamorín. However, police insisted the mission had fulfilled its purpose, even though none of the alleged Slovak and Hungarian mafia members among the 150 guests were taken into custody.

It was a sign of things to come, as officials change tack in their fight against crime. Now, knowledge is just as important as putting criminals behind bars.

"[Through the operation] we have gathered further information that tells us which [mafia] groups are close to each other. All those invited were part of the underworld, or were close to the underworld, and we will categorise them as such in the future," said police vice-president Jaroslav Spišiak.

Spišiak said police acted in line with their policy of no tolerance against mafia practices, among which is listed organising pompous celebrations to demonstrate the groups' strength and solidarity to outside observers.

"Such behaviour of the underworld is a nuisance that provokes public fear, undermines the very basis of a legal state, and has a negative moral impact on society as a whole. No such expressions of the mafia will be tolerated," Spišiak said.

Making life harder for mafia and organised-crime groups is one of the key aims of the cabinet's anti-crime plan, approved on January 15. The plan, which includes a list of nearly 100 specific objectives, updates a plan produced by the previous Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet and is designed to make Slovakia a safer place for its inhabitants.

Tougher and quicker punishment of the country's criminals is to be achieved through a complete overhaul of Slovakia's Criminal Code by September next year. The government will also establish an institute for special prosecutors and judges who deal exclusively with organised crime and corruption cases, as well as a national coordination centre for fighting crime, to serve as a resource and reference institution for police, prosecutors, and judges.

The so-called 'three strikes and you're out' legislation, allowing judges to sentence repeat offenders to life without parole after committing their third violent crime, is to be introduced by September 2003.

Security analysts backed the tougher stance, stating that safety was often quoted by citizens as a top priority in a number of public opinion surveys. The changes were also seen as a necessary response to a growing number of crimes committed in Slovakia.

According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, 107,825 crimes of all types were committed in Slovakia in 2002, up from 93,053 in the previous year.

The cabinet plan stated that 26 organised criminal groups are currently operating in Slovakia. Minister Palko believes these organisations could be cracked if legislation is introduced allowing prosecutors to promise softer penalties, or none at all, to mafia members who agree to testify against organised gangs.

"Everywhere in the world fighting [organised crime groups] relies on one member testifying against the rest. Low penalties or complete immunity is secured in return for testimony," Palko said at a press conference January 15.

Jozef Majchrák, a security analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava agreed with that move.

"Measures like that are used in many countries. Immunity or softer penalties come as a reward for that person's agreement to work with the police and put himself at risk," Majchrák said.

In order to make the fight against organised crime and corruption more effective, Palko has proposed to pick a few top specialists and put them in a special office where they will concentrate exclusively on this agenda.

"If there are fewer, more specialised [experts], they will be under greater public control and will also be better protected [from possible life threats or efforts to corrupt them]," the minister said.

With regard to punishments, Palko plans to introduce a new system of calculating penalties for criminals convicted of committing several crimes at once.

According to Slovak law, a perpetrator convicted of committing several crimes is only sentenced for the most serious of those crimes, rather than given a sentence that takes into account all the crimes committed.

Palko believes this rule must be dropped. He said multiple convicts should be punished with a penalty that is 50 per cent longer than the term for his most serious crime.

Amidst a number of changes to penal rules, Palko is aiming for more effective police structures, and is currently discussing a reorganisation of the police force in the regions.

It is expected that some district and regional police headquarters will be merged or shut down altogether, to reduce bureaucracy in the force and get more officers out on the beat.

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