THERE is no doubt that deputy immunity under certain conditions could be a useful instrument if it serves only to protect political independence.
However, deputy immunity in Slovakia has not been used with particular judiciousness. Over the past decade, deputy immunity has either slowed down or prevented the criminal prosecution of deputies suspected of committing crimes far more serious than merely expressing an independent political attitude.
Among the promises that the Mikuláš Dzurinda government gave the public in 1998 and 2002 is that it would limit the immunity of members of parliament. It is 2005, and it is still unclear whether the government will keep its word.
On March 30, the cabinet agreed to discuss revisions to constitutional law that would limit MP criminal immunity, but the issue was passed on to the senior political ruling body, the Coalition Council.
The ruling coalition knows it does not have the necessary votes to pass the immunity measure in parliament. Not only because the opposition might be against it, but most importantly because some coalition deputies might object to losing their special privileges.
In order to revise constitutional law on immunity, as many as 90 MPs must vote in favour of the proposal. The ruling coalition currently has 68 MPs.
Between 1997 and 1998, the speaker of parliament summoned numerous parliamentary sessions upon the request of the former opposition that wanted to sack ministers of the Mečiar government or, at the very least, lift their immunity.
These trials mostly failed. Deputies of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party chose a simple yet effective solution: they took refuge in the parliamentary buffet and waited until the speaker of parliament discarded the vote as invalid due to its failure of meeting the quorum.
The fate of people like former Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči, suspected of power abuse and thwarting the referendum on the country's entry to NATO, or onetime spy boss Ivan Lexa, accused of sundry crimes, hinged on the "good-will" of their parliamentary colleagues.
At that time, several ruling coalition members - including Mikuláš Dzurinda - said that once the parliament surrendered Krajči to criminal prosecution, the myth that politicians escape punishment regardless of their crimes would be broken.
Unfortunately, with its rise to power, the Dzurinda government has lost its eagerness to shatter the myths of deputy untouchability.
Although an intense debate started over redefining deputy immunity in 1999, none of the parties were in any special hurry to tailor it.
Even those who earlier advocated cancelling deputy immunity, claiming that it was too broad in Slovakia, covering all crimes and offences, later lost their desire to even limit deputy immunity.
The existing constitutional article on deputy immunity is one of the relics of the past, a time when the political elite was protected in a way that contradicted democratic principles. A revision of the article would help elected officials preserve their political independence, whereas today it simply shelters them from the consequences of taking criminal action.
Deputies seem to miss the point on all their parliamentary debates about immunity. By lifting deputy immunity, they are not deciding on matters of innocence or guilt but simply allowing the legal system to do its job.
It is no wonder that parliamentary discussions about lifting deputy immunity turned into ham-fisted simulations of court trials, where the members of parliament played judge.
When in February 1999, parliament finally agreed to waive Gustáv Krajči's right to immunity in the case of thwarting the 1997 referendum on NATO entry and direct presidential elections, his colleagues started burning candles in the hallway of parliament.
Krajči talked to his party sympathizers with the face of a martyr, saying that he was a victim of political persecution. In fact, nothing more - or less - happened than the parliament surrendered him to criminal prosecution, which means they allowed the courts to decide.
In 1999, many claimed that both the ruling coalition and the opposition learned their lesson from the Krajči case, which traumatized a society that is encouraged to continue seeing deputies as immune to prosecution.
The debate over deputy immunity reached a greater intensity when parliament considered removing Slovak National Party leader Ján Slota's immunity on grounds of hate speech. Under the apparent influence of alcohol, Slota, in a public speech, called for the nation to rise up in arms and to "level Budapest to the ground". The investigator said that Slota was suspected of defaming a nation and inciting national hatred. The parliament refused to lift his deputy immunity at that time.
The deputies' refusal to limit their immunity creates the impression that parliament has the power to decide innocence or guilt.
Last July, members of parliament across the political spectrum refused to cut their extensive immunity by rejecting a similar law prepared by Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic. The deputies said they feared unnecessary court trials and investigations.
It remains a problem when a society that has enshrined the equality of citizens in its laws creates and preserves groups of citizens who are "more equal" than others.
By Beata Balogová
28. Mar 2005 at 0:00