ONE observer responded to a recent petition signed by 105 Slovak judges – who argue that the judicial authorities are seeking to penalise judges for their opinions – by saying that Slovakia’s judiciary may require a clean-up of Augean proportions. But this is not an opinion shared by Prime Minister Robert Fico and his ruling coalition partner Vladimír Mečiar.
They say that the recent turmoil in the judiciary has been triggered by politicians and that if there are really any problems in Slovakia’s courts, the judges should solve them by themselves. Fico added that protracted legal proceedings are the biggest problem in the justice system.
The petition, dubbed the ‘Five Sentences’ after the five appeals it contains, was presented on October 1 by three senior judges – Miroslav Gavalec of the Supreme Court, Katarína Javorčíková of the Bratislava Regional Court and Dušan Čimo of the Trnava Regional Court – who talked openly about “an atmosphere of fear” within the Slovak judiciary.
The petition came just a few weeks after 15 judges wrote an open letter in early September to Slovakia’s three highest constitutional officials, as well as to the Justice Minister and Slovakia’s Judicial Council, warning of what they called the abuse of disciplinary proceedings against certain judges who were critical of Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin.
Shortly after the publication of the Five Sentences the council of the Košice Regional Court distributed its own stance, dismissing the petition as ‘biased’ and arguing that it fails to list the positive developments within the judiciary.
The Sme daily called the Košice document an ‘anti-charter’, referring to a historical parallel with events under communism in 1977, when opponents of the regime signed Charter 77, which called for observance of human rights, only to be denounced by apologists for the regime, who drafted and signed a document called the anti-charter.
The Justice Ministry said it would begin a public discussion about the situation in the judiciary, but the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the party which originally nominated Harabin to the post of justice minister, called the recent developments an attack against the party.
Fico said that recent developments within the judiciary were an internal affair of judges that they must work out for themselves.
“Fico’s reaction is typical of a government politician who is unwilling to admit the existence of a problem out of fear that he could subsequently be accused of responsibility for it,” Ivan Kuhn, an analyst with the Conservative Institute of M.R. Štefánik, told The Slovak Spectator. “This is why he has chosen the ‘offence is the best form of defence’ tactic and is blaming the opposition for creating this problem or exaggerating it to boost its popularity.”
According to Kuhn, Fico is trying to avoid having to engage personally in the solution of the problem.
Representatives of the 105 signatories strongly criticised Prime Minister Fico’s attitude.
“The judiciary is a public matter concerning the whole of society and every citizen. It is therefore not only judges who are responsible for the state it is in but representatives of the executive and legislative powers are equally responsible,” Gavalec, Javorčíková and Čimo told the TASR newswire.
On October 7, Fico restated that he does not want to drag politics into the judiciary and suggested that protracted legal proceedings are the biggest problem facing the sector.
“Let's leave them to sort out their internal problems,” Fico said, as quoted by TASR. “I don't even want to comment on this issue. It's not my problem; it's the problem of the Slovak judiciary as such.”
However, Kuhn said he could not see what Fico meant when he suggested that judges should solve the situation on their own.
“Since the judiciary does not work on the principle of democracy – for that, a majority of judges would have to elect in a [general] vote the members of the Judicial Council and the members and the chief justice of the Supreme Court respectively [which they do not] – I really do not know what the Prime Minister means when he says that they have to solve the situation by themselves,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn said he believed the judiciary in Slovakia needed to be cleaned like the Augean stables, and that calming tensions would not be enough.
HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar dismissed criticism of Harabin as unfounded.
“If I make up a ghost and start fearing it, it is not an issue for the judiciary but for a psychologist,” Mečiar said, as quoted by Sme.
The petition came on the heels of the case of Banská Bystrica District Court judge Jana Dubovcová, who recently faced disciplinary proceedings for expressing her personal opinion. Her boss, Ľubomír Bušík, submitted a proposal for Dubovcová to be disciplined after she earlier this year wrote a highly critical commentary for Sme about the condition of the judiciary. Dubovcová also supported the “Red Light for Harabin” campaign organised by the Fair-Play Alliance NGO to oppose Harabin’s election, according to Sme.
Fico commented that a judge should not be suspended for expressing critical or political opinions, even on a theoretical level.
Justice Minister Viera Petríková, a HZDS nominee, approved Bušík’s proposal on September 27, provoking a wave of criticism from non-governmental organisations, opposition political parties and the media. The next day, Bušík withdrew his request for Dubovcová’s suspension, saying that the matter had already turned into a political fight. Petríková then accepted Bušík’s modified proposal, by which Dubovcová’s judicial status was changed for the second time within a short period.
Meanwhile, the council of the Trnava Regional Court has also released a stance suggesting that it does not support the initiative by the signatories of the Five Sentences, the SITA newswire wrote.
“The council of Trnava Regional Court does not identify with this form of presentation by a group of judges, as it is an effort to politicise the problems of the judiciary; such a presentation raises doubts among the public about the credibility of the judiciary and endangers the esteem and dignity of judges and the judiciary,” the council wrote.