In the war against crime, how to net the big fish?

IT SEEMS that the new legislation on documenting the origin of assets, which was trumpeted as an effective tool to fight organized crime, lacks the sharp teeth the legislators claimed, and may in fact injure the innocent.

After adopting the law on June 23, the Justice Ministry claimed that people suspected of obtaining their property illegally would now have to prove otherwise or risk losing it.

The Justice Ministry's claim describes a very complicated procedure, and should result in property of unproven legal origin being expropriated by the state.

However, there are doubts about whether the state has the capacity to handle the procedure if the police are inundated with complaints. How the police handle data gathered in cases where a suspect is eventually proved innocent is also very uncertain.

The country's prosecutor general, Dobroslav Trnka, expressed serious doubts about the effectiveness of the law.

Trnka says that the law might simply result in a wave of complaints and citizen reports to the police, who already seem understaffed, to perform the Herculean task of checking the origin of property of all who look to be suspicious to their neighbour.

The concern that if the police are swamped by the complaints they might concentrate on the petty cases and not put their resources into going after the big fish, is a legitimate one.

Some experts say that the general experience with new legislation is that people are hesitant to use it rather than overuse it. Apart from that, the police will not be taking anonymous complaints, which means that people will have to stand behind their accusations. This may indeed repel many from reporting their neighbours or colleagues to the police.

Still, Prosecutor Trnka managed to plant serious seeds of doubt into those who had faith in the legislation by saying that the law, instead of being an "executioner" of the illegally rich will become a "persecutor" of innocent citizens.

"We won't live long enough to see the outcome of court cases", Trnka said.

According to the daily SME, Trnka, when warning of the wave of complaints, even used a quote by the ambassador of Nazi Germany to wartime Slovakia, Hans Ludin, who said that if the war had lasted a half-year longer, the Slovak nation would have administratively "executed" the embassy.

Ludin was reportedly referring to the high number of reports that the embassy received from Slovaks about anti-Slovak and anti-German activities that the Gestapo collected there.

Trnka thinks that the law in fact will create chaos, which will make it fertile soil for corruption and murky deals. If the law has weaknesses, people will abuse it; that is nothing new. Weak laws give rise to crime, something there is already plenty of evidence for.

In fact, the general prosecutor might just turn to the Constitutional Court to freeze the law, although Trnka did not confirm that that was what he would do.

Pavol Nechala, of Transparency International, told the weekly Trend that there is a danger of people using the law to make unjustified complaints against their business competitors.

At the time the law was created, the Justice Ministry said that a similar law had been passed in Italy with positive results and that the country has been able to confiscate mafia property and thus limit their activities.

Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic does not share Trnka's concerns, but he does not rule out some amendments having to be made to the law.

No one doubts that something needs to be done about people who have become wealthy illegally, through fraud or manipulation, and who are unable to give any legitimate explanation of how they became part of the business elite.

But now it is also clear that several aspects of the law will have to be reconsidered and revised. If Trnka's words about the law creating chaos prove to be true, it will only catch the small fry and leave the big fish to swim free.

Essentially, the law is written in such a way that if a property owner cannot legally document how he or she obtained property which has a value exceeding his or her declared income by Sk6.5 million (€169,800), the state has the right to expropriate the difference between the value of the property and the owner's declared income.

Many say that so much of this is right now in the hands of Financial Police, which, under the law, have been granted additional powers. Some even fear how the financial police will use their new authority and whether they will violate citizens' privacy rights.

In the case of unjustified complaints, the police will be handling information about people who are not criminals. Many have asked how the police will secure the protection of this information, and how will they guarantee that the information will not be misused.

Whenever the government declares a war against an evil force, be it terrorists, mafia or corruption, the state enters the sensitive domain of handling private information and privacy issues.

State officials owe society an answer as to how they will ensure that innocent citizens will not have to sacrifice their privacy and personal data in this war against the mafia.

By Beata Balogová

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