The root of the problem

IF THE UNDERWORLD in Slovakia has its own festival calendar, May 20 will in future be marked as a red-letter day. Think of it as a sort of Christmas or Thanksgiving for the mob.

IF THE UNDERWORLD in Slovakia has its own festival calendar, May 20 will in future be marked as a red-letter day. Think of it as a sort of Christmas or Thanksgiving for the mob.

May 20 does not mark the birthday of a famous Slovak mafia boss or a spectacular failure by the police to crack down on a mafia get-together: instead, it is the day Slovakia’s Special Court, which was established to tackle high-level state corruption and organised crime, was dealt its death-blow. On May 20, 2009, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Special Court had not been established in line with the country’s constitution.

For many the Special Court held a symbolic importance, representing the country’s commitment to fight organised crime and high-level corruption effectively.

At the time when the former centre-right government of Mikuláš Dzurinda established the Special Court, one of the main arguments in its favour was that such a court, to handle the most serious crimes from all over the country, could actually weed out the influence that powerful local gangs or even light-fingered civil servants might have on local courts.

Also, the state can more effectively protect judges working under the roof of a special institution than attempt to shelter every single judge who might be assigned a case to try, for instance, a local kingpin already accused of bribing everyone in sight. At least, this is how former justice minister Daniel Lipšic defended the existence of the court.

The court’s operation has convinced many who to begin with were rather sceptical about the institution. How?

By results.

The Special Court, for example, sentenced the former mayor of the Bratislava suburb of Rača, Pavol Bielik, a senior official of the Christian-Democratic Movement, to five years in prison on corruption charges, banned him from holding public office for seven years and fined him Sk500,000 (€16,600). It was a clear signal to all who thought that the cash slipped into their deep pockets in dark corners or under the table was a form of bonus that came with their public positions.

A year after it was established, the court imposed lengthy jail terms on members of the so-called acid-bath gang, a brutal criminal enterprise whose ‘entrepreneurs’ murdered their business partners and dissolved them in acid. The gang’s trial was itself a crucial test of the court’s efficiency since the defendants’ methods meant the police did not have any bodies as evidence.

The court also scored against the secretary of Slovakia’s Football Association, Vladimír Wänke, who was tried over accusations of nine cases of bribery and consigned to the criminals’ reserves bench for three years and four months.

Vladimír Fruni, one of the men behind a Slovak mega-fraud which affected over 120,000 clients, robbing them of about Sk14 billion, was sentenced to 11.5 years in jail. Fruni was involved in the pyramid schemes BMG Invest and Horizont, which collected deposits from tens of thousands of clients by promising annual returns of 40 percent.

These are the people who will now be feeling some optimism in their cells. And they don’t include the ones whose cases have not been wrapped up yet, such as one-time tycoon Jozef Majský, who is accused of embezzling funds from the BMG Invest and Horizont scams; or František Mojžiš, the boss of another deposit company, Drukos, whose clients are demanding billions of crowns in damages from him.
Even though the Constitutional Court said that verdicts issued by the Special Court should remain valid, there are concerns about whether the sentences of the criminals convicted by the Special Court will now hold. If the institution which tried and sentenced them was unconstitutional, what will prevent those convicted from demanding retrials? Yet the ruling of the Constitutional Court was decided by the vote of only one of its 13 judges. They split seven to six in favour of the motion brought by 46 ruling coalition MPs to have the Special Court dissolved.

The court ruled that the Special Court was created in a way which interferes with the separation of executive and judicial power to the advantage of the executive power. One of the reasons was the mandatory National Security Office clearance mandatory for all Special Court judges.

Radoslav Procházka, who represented those defending the court in the legal process, said he did not see a single relevant reason why it would not be enough simply to cancel compulsory security screening for the judges rather than killing the whole court. Another argument of the opponents of the court was that the pay of its judges was disproportionate to its purpose. So why could the judges pay not have been amended?

There were people who welcomed the cancellation of the court as if it were the root of all Slovakia’s judicial problems. But it seems that there are plenty of people, not least among them foreign diplomats and lawyers, who think that the judiciary is precisely where those problems start.

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