FIFTEEN senior Slovak judges have spoken out, voicing concern about the state of the Slovak judiciary. Prompted by what they call the intimidation and harassment of judges who become ‘inconvenient’ for those at the top of the judiciary, the 15 wrote an open letter to the country’s president, prime minister and speaker of parliament.
The 15 signatories of the letter say that disciplinary proceedings under way against some critical judges are being used as a tool for their removal or at least intimidation. The letter's publication has led the opposition to call for changes to the disciplinary proceeding rules governing judges.
The ruling coalition has remained largely silent, though a HZDS deputy called the opposition initiative an attempt to intervene in the independence of the judiciary.
However, Slovakia’s political ethics watchdog warned that it is precisely the independence of the judiciary which is at risk.
Though Parliament’s Constitutional Committee met to debate the developments on September 16, it produced little more than a heated discussion.
The letter by the 15 judges cites cases of disciplinary proceedings against Judges Anna Benešová, Darina Kuchtová, Milan Ružička and Robert Urban to support their claim that disciplinary proceedings have turned into a tool of intimidation.
“And there are additional ones where it seems that the common denominator is criticism of Supreme Court and Judicial Council head Štefan Harabin,” reads the letter, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
According to the letter’s signatories, the practice of applying double standards surfaces when for the same disciplinary fault, one judge is suspended and their dismissal is proposed, while others do not even face disciplinary proceedings. Such proceedings, however, are not the sole weapon employed against inconvenient judges, the letter says, as quoted by SITA, but also “very effective are changes to the work schedule when judges specialising in one type of court agenda get shifted to different ones from one day to another.”
One of the cases to cause a judicial stir was that of Supreme Court Judge Peter Paluda, who has been temporarily suspended after filing a criminal complaint against Harabin for alleged abuse of power. Paluda is among the signatories of the letter.
The Judicial Council called Paluda’s complaint a “deceitful and untrue complaint about the Supreme Court chairman” which they said was filed with the intention of harming and dishonouring Harabin.
Helena Kožíková, a member of the Judicial Council, was quoted by SITA as saying that the council suspended Paluda because “whether anybody likes it or not, it is at odds with judges' ethics to file criminal complaints against the chairman of the court or a colleague”.
As to how the government should react to the situation, Lucia Žitňanská, a former justice minister and now an MP for the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), told The Slovak Spectator that in the current situation it can do one thing: “propose a change to the law in a way that it eliminates the possibility of abuse of the disciplinary proceedings as well as the suspension of the judges’ operation”.
The opposition hopes to succeed in amending the rules governing disciplinary proceedings and said it will seek support within the ruling coalition as well.
Žitňanská said it is rather complicated to tell when disciplinary proceedings are being abused but she also said that there are cases when the abuse is quite obvious: “for example the case of Paluda unambiguously shows that the disciplinary proceeding is being imposed on him because he filed a criminal complaint.”
“If we look at cases for which Judges Urban and Ružička are penalised and on the other hand the case of Judge Sninská, who is being prosecuted for corruption but has not been suspended [from the bench], then one finds obvious differences in the approach towards particular negligence of duties there,” Žitňanská said.
Judge Miriam Sninská is facing criminal prosecution on charges of corruption. She is the niece of Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) MP Milan Urbáni, according to SITA. Harabin, who served as justice minister until his election as Supreme Court chairman earlier this year, was nominated to his ministerial post by the HZDS.
Another former justice minister, currently an opposition Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH) MP, Daniel Lipšic has several times warned that Sninská is still acting as a judge while other judges critical of Harabin have been subjected to disciplinary proceedings, SITA added.
“It is obvious that in the case of people who are for some reason inconvenient, even a minor violation of judicial duties can lead to immediate suspension,” Žitňanská told the Slovak Spectator. “However, in the case of a judge who is being criminally prosecuted for corruption, she has been allowed to operate for over two years.”
Lipšic, who suggested that a “judiciary mafia” rules in Slovakia, said he will file a criminal complaint over what he called suspicions of interference with the independence of judiciary.
Lipšic is basing his complaint on statements by Anna Benešová, a judge of the Bratislava Regional Court, who in an interview with the Sme daily accused the court’s management of putting pressure on her to give preference to the complaints of the then-justice minister and current Supreme Court head Harabin. She also claims she was advised on how to rule in those cases, Sme wrote.
Žitňanská said that the judiciary is clearly calling for changes to the system itself, but that the opposition would now settle for minor corrections which would at least limit the space for abuse.
“We would try to find partners for that in the coalition,” Žitňanská said.
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) MP and member of parliament’s Constitutional Committee Katarína Tóthová was critical of the opposition initiatives and said that the committee did not have the authority to decide on the disciplinary proceedings.
“It is an absolute intervention into the impartiality of the judiciary,” Tóthová said, as quoted by public broadcaster Slovak Radio on September 14.
Mojmír Mamojka of Smer, which governs in coalition with the HZDS, told the TASR newswire that the condition of the Slovak judiciary had never been excellent but “from one or two disciplinary proceedings one should not make a revolution”.
Žitňanská said that current developments do threaten the independence of the judiciary.
“These exemplary penalties for judges who have their opinion and aren’t afraid to express it has a threatening effect on the whole judiciary,” Žitňanská said.
Zuzana Wienk of the Fair Play Alliance is of the same opinion.
“The impartial and just judiciary is under threat,” Wienk told The Slovak Spectator. “This threat could impact anyone who won’t be able to find justice. We are destroying our own immunity as a society if we allow this trend to continue.”
Earlier this year the Fair Play Alliance launched an electronic protest petition at a website, www.cervenapreharabina.sk, which means “Red Light for Harabin”, against the election of Harabin to the post of Supreme Court president. The alliance also organised a last-minute protest against Harabin in front of the Justice Ministry building where the Judicial Council voted on June 22.
The alliance argued that the ‘first person’ of the judiciary should be a candidate with an unblemished record who performs tasks independently with deep respect for justice, truth and ethics. Such a person, according to the alliance’s website, should be able to lead by example.
“We see Štefan Harabin for his past concrete acts to be a direct threat to justice, independence, impartiality, honesty and the judiciary as such,” the Fair Play Alliance wrote on its website.
“These concerns unfortunately existed at the time of the campaign and were one of the reasons which in our eyes disqualified Štefan Harabin from the position of highest representative of the judiciary,” said Wienk. “In my opinion, we are now getting to a stage where the abuse of power in the justice department is immense and shocking. At the same time I view these disciplinary proceedings as a way of direct liquidation of the opponents of the Supreme Court president without signs of fairness, legality and neutrality.”
According to Wienk, politicians should regard these developments as a state of crisis and threat, and seek immediate, in-depth solutions to save the judiciary and prevent a group of people from abusing it.
Commenting on what she sees as the most serious shortcomings of the Slovak judiciary Wienk listed “political abuse by a small group of people without principles and values; the fear and passivity of other judges; and the threat to independence and non-partiality, and the lack of values and ethics within the system”.
Michaela Stanková contributed to this report.