HIS HAIR awry and his suit looking as if he had slept in it, Michal Hrbáček still managed to swagger as he walked out of pre-trial custody in Bratislava on January 8.
While appearing the worse for wear after four months in jail, the former secret service agent and karate expert had lost none of his trademark self-assurance. Only hours before, in a closed-door session, the Bratislava Regional Court had released him on €19,916 (Sk600,000) bail. A panel of judges upheld a lower court ruling that the crime Hrbáček was accused of had occurred two years ago, and that the defendant was no longer a threat to the ongoing investigation.
Hrbáček’s release was opposed by prosecutor Eva Mišíková, who claimed that witnesses to a series of up to 140 assaults, incidents of torture and kidnapping by rogue police gangs, which Hrbáček is suspected of having helped to organise, would now fear to testify.
“In view of his stature, contacts and knowledge of (police) methods, there is concrete reason to believe that he could hamper the investigation,” she said.
The former head of special operations with Slovakia’s secret service, the SIS, Hrbáček is suspected of having organised the kidnapping of the-then president’s son in 1995, as well as of illegally diverting weapons from the SIS. He was never tried on either count due to an 1998 amnesty issued by former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar .
More recently, Hrbáček has been in custody on a charge of attempted assault since September 12. The case relates to the beating in 2006 of Bratislava attorney Tomáš Kozovský, in which Hrbáček allegedly drove former police officers Miroslav Jacko and Juraj Rozsík to the scene of the crime in a white van, and then afterwards took them to a restaurant he owns in Šamorín to pay them off.
While police have yet to identify a motive for the crime, they believe it was related to Kozovský’s position as a bankruptcy trustee with the Perspektíva insurance house. They also believe that Hrbáček, Jacko, Rozsík and other serving and former officers were involved in a long-running organised campaign to extort money from dozens of business people and other victims by breaking into their homes and violently assaulting or kidnapping them.
Rozsík is now cooperating with police investigators as a crown witness in what has become known as the ‘police gang’ case. One of the first crimes he helped clear up was the 2006 murder of businessman Ján Kubašiak during a home invasion committed by Rozsík himself along with former policemen Robert Petluš and Robert Červeňan.
“They called me!”
Hrbáček was remanded in custody after it emerged that Alexander Sabó, then a Bratislava prison guard, had called Hrbáček to tell him that Rozsík had been transferred to the Bratislava cells where Sabó worked.
At the first hearing to consider his release from custody on December 15, Hrbáček told the Bratislava District I court that he and Sabó had merely expressed their disgust at Rozsík’s behaviour. “As ordinary citizens, we just couldn’t believe it, a policeman who robbed and kidnapped people in his spare time,” he said, admitting that Sabó should not have revealed Rozsík’s whereabouts to him, as he was not a policeman. “Maybe he (Sabó) is a problematic person, but what happened on the basis of that phone call? Nothing.”
According to a source close to the investigation, however, following the phone call between Sabó and Hrbáček, a white van was seen near the convoy carrying Rozsík to a reconstruction of the Kozovský beating. The resemblance between that vehicle and the one Hrbáček allegedly used to drive him to the scene of the crime in 2006 convinced Rozsík that someone was trying to send him a message to keep quiet.
The prosecution claimed that reasons for custody remained due to the fact that Hrbáček was still in active contact with former policemen such as Sabó and the former head of the Banská Bystrica police, as well as with former secret service agents and officers with the police Organised Crime Bureau.
“But they called me, I didn’t call them!” Hrbáček shouted at one point, claiming that the police officers had wanted to warn him that he was in physical danger.“Will the accused please settle down,” warned the judge.
Attempted bon mot
The behaviour of the accused and his counsel brought more excitement than usual to the December proceedings. Hrbáček at times seemed to have trouble controlling his emotions, and lawyer Peter Filip early on raised his finger to his lips in a ‘shushing’ sign to his client.
The defence and the prosecution skirmished over several topics, including the reliability of Rozsík as a witness. Hrbáček told the court that “the whole case is an invention based on the testimony of a thief, murderer and kidnapper of children”.
The prosecutor, meanwhile, noted that Rozsík had appeared as a crown witness in a number of other cases resulting in guilty verdicts. “This means he is a reliable witness.”
The two sides also crossed swords over the money that had been deposited with the court as bail, with the prosecution claiming the court had failed properly to ascertain that the money did not come from crime.
“I put up the bail money myself,” said Filip. “Are you trying to cast doubt on where I got the money from?” To which the prosecutor replied that she had not been doubting Filip’s integrity, but rather highlighting a flaw in the court’s procedures.
The defence later began to launch personal attacks on the prosecution. “Until now I had thought that only Rozsík was lying in this case, but now I’m not sure about the prosecutor,” Hrbáček said.
On the other hand, the court heard testimony from a member of the investigation team that Filip had twice tried to get information from him about the case, and that he had claimed in a Bratislava pub that “the state must have a lot of money if it is able to afford advertisements on page three of the Sme daily”.
The lawyer was apparently referring to an article in the newspaper covering Hrbáček’s arrest and chequered past.
“It was just an attempt at a bon mot,” Filip told The Slovak Spectator after the court was adjourned.