A story of unanswered questions

MORE than three decades have passed since 20-year-old Ľudmila Cervanová, a medical student, disappeared somewhere between the terminal of bus number 39 and the entrance hall to her student dormitory in Bratislava.

MORE than three decades have passed since 20-year-old Ľudmila Cervanová, a medical student, disappeared somewhere between the terminal of bus number 39 and the entrance hall to her student dormitory in Bratislava.

Immediately after the disappearance of the student on July 9, 1976 the police, controlled by the secret police and the leadership of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, involved more than 50 investigators in a half-year long investigation, checked about 3,500 automobiles, interviewed more than 400 persons whom the prosecution called witnesses, and then accused several suspects, among them foreign students. Observers who have followed the case from its early stages say the aim of this investigation, described in the contemporary media in a detailed manner, was to persuade 15 million Czechoslovaks that the communist regime had an efficient police force able to solve criminal deeds.

But even after this half-year long investigation the true perpetrators had not been identified and the investigation was stopped in March 1977. Then at the beginning of 1978, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia ordered the investigation to be re-opened with the aim to find the culprits at any cost.

According to observers, some of the investigators, prosecutors and judges involved in the case could have been driven by a hope that a successful wrap-up of the renewed investigation would secure their firm careers under the regime.

After three years, in 1981, about 20 young people from Nitra were detained and subsequently seven men were arrested and accused of the crime. A woman was subsequently detained in 1982 and then became the main witness against the men. The accused have said that during the hearings while in custody they were under psychological and physical pressure and were forced to sign information that the investigators called confessions.

The accused say they were faced with the choice between signing the admissions and being sentenced to death by hanging. This is what they claim led them to eventually signing the statements that the investigators called admissions.

Observers say that an important fact is that the men never signed any confessions before the courts but only during the investigations.

The accused claim they had not been in the circle of acquaintances of Cervanová and that the whole case had been constructed by the police. During the investigation and trial they were described in the media as ‘the group of men from Nitra’, but they claim they had never been a group of friends.

The sentenced men spent many years in prison. In the 1980s their attorneys, relatives and the men themselves continued to protest against their convictions with all the applicable Czechoslovak state bodies, which formally replied to the written appeals but never reconsidered or re-examined the questionable facts that they were asked to investigate.

In a move unprecedented since 1948, attorneys from Nitra, Bratislava and Prague who had represented the seven men from Nitra submitted a petition against the sentence in 1988.

While some observers say the truth will someday be revealed and that answers will be provided to the many questions surrounding the case, they also say that it has just taken too long and that some family members of those whose lives have been impacted might not be alive to hear those answers.

Ondrej Dostál, the director of the Conservative Institute of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, known also as a human rights activist, has been following the Cervanová case for many years and believes there are numerous controversial, unanswered aspects.

“There is no direct evidence about the guilt of the sentenced,” Dostál told The Slovak Spectator. “Their sentences are only based on their confessions, which they all equally claim to have been forced into signing under brutal pressure by the investigators.”

The background

The seven young men from Nitra – Juraj Lachman, Ing. František Čerman, Stanislav Dúbravický, Ing. Pavol Beďač, Mgr. Roman Brázda, Ing. Miloš Kocúr, and Ing. Milan Andrášik – were detained in 1981. MUDr. Viera Zimáková, who later became a main witness for the prosecution in the case, was detained in 1982.

The prosecution claimed the seven had kidnapped the student from a Bratislava disco on July 9, 1976, raped her about 10 times and then murdered her. All seven suspects were found guilty by the Bratislava Regional Court in 1982 and sentenced to between four and 24 years in prison. Originally, the prosecution had requested death sentences for four of the accused, despite their claims that they were innocent.

In 1990 after the fall of the communist regime, the Czechoslovak General Prosecutor, Tibor Böhm, appealed to the Czechoslovak Supreme Court in Prague, saying that the rights of the convicted men had been violated because not all means of proving or disproving their guilt had been used in the legal proceedings. In the court proceedings in 1990 the Supreme Court found 72 mistakes or imperfections in the judicial process, including both the investigation and the trial, and in essence the Supreme Court cancelled the original sentences. The Supreme Court returned the case to the lower courts and those still in prison were released.

Hopes were raised among those who believed the seven men and woman were innocent that the courts in the new democracy would elucidate the truth about the case. However, the Bratislava Regional Court kept starting the proceedings but did not make a decision for well over a decade, leading Slovakia’s Constitutional Court to rule in 2003 that the regional court was hindering the process.

The Bratislava Regional Court then made its decision in January 2004. The seven men from Nitra were once again found guilty of the crime for which they had already served a considerable part, or all, of their prison sentences.

The defendants appealed the regional court’s verdict and within months their lawyers said they had gathered dozens of new and original significant documents that cast further doubt on the defendants’ involvement in the crime: new testimonies were found in the archives of the Interior Ministry in Levoča and an expert report written by forensic medical expert, Peter Fiala, stated that back in the 1980s the investigators made numerous serious mistakes, misinterpretations of the evidence, and acted unprofessionally.

The 2006 ruling

Slovakia’s Supreme Court ruled on the appeal in 2006 but did not admit these new documents, allegedly in favour of the defendants, into evidence. The Supreme Court confirmed the verdict of the regional court from 2004, ignoring all the imperfections noted by the Czechoslovak Supreme Court in 1990, and ordered even greater prison terms for three of the defendants, forcing two of them to return to the prison to serve the remainder of their sentences.

Many questions

According to Dostál, there are serious doubts about the identity of the body that was found in a brook near Kráľová pri Senci and it is not certain that it was Cervanová’s, as there are several questionable points in the autopsy records as well as in its identification. Evidence that could have been potentially used for DNA analysis [a rope which was used to tie up the arms of the woman containing residues of fat cells and skin from the victim, an unused part of the rope and three grey hairs found under the tied rope] was destroyed in 1988, said Dostál.

“After the fall of communism the courts refused to even consider the newly revealed testimonies from the first phase of the investigation of the case [between 1976 and 1977], which are stored in the archive of the Interior Ministry in Levoča and which allegedly speak in favour of the accused,” Dostál said.

These materials in the Levoča archive purportedly include the testimonies of over 300 witnesses who were at the disco on July 9, 1976 with Cervanová. None of the testimonies said that the seven men, the woman from Nitra and two French girls, 16-year-old Cohen sisters, were present at the disco. The lawyers of the defendants claimed these were important written documents that were concealed from the court, the Týždeň weekly reported.

Dostál also criticised the fact that the Slovak courts refused to take into consideration the results of polygraph tests which four of the men – Lachman, Beďač, Dúbravický and Čerman – underwent with a US expert, Patrick T. Coffey. The results of these four tests indicated that the men were blameless, Dostál said.

“The polygraph test results are not considered as [reliable] evidence by Slovak courts,” Dostál said, adding that “polygraph tests can be deceived but it’s almost impossible that four out of four tested would manage to do this.”

The expert report

An expert report written in 2004 by MUDr. Peter Fiala, a forensic medicine expert of the Regional Court in Bratislava appointed in 1985 at the request of the defendants with an aim to serve as evidence for the appeal process which ended in the Supreme Court’s 2006 guilty verdict, was apparently not given any credence by the court. Fiala’s report was based on records from the autopsy of the recovered body and on reports documenting the scene where the body was found. He wrote in the report that from 1976 until 1982, two forensic experts who had worked on the case, as well as the investigators, wittingly or unwittingly committed serious mistakes, misinterpreted the evidence and acted unprofessionally.

Fiala was asked to give his expert opinion on 12 questions, including an evaluation of the statements of the experts who performed the autopsy of the body that was found in 1976 in the brook which was subsequently identified as the missing Cervanová, and Fiala noted several questionable points in the original investigation and autopsy.

“As an expert I think that many basic questions remain unanswered; some facts are improperly documented as several questions are answered in an inexact, unprofessional and indirect way in the case,” Fiala wrote in the report.

Fiala also claimed that the correct identity of the body is questionable as it was not handled in accordance with the usual practices and rules of identification – for instance it was not immediately sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Bratislava for further expert analysis but was left for one night in the morgue in Kráľová pri Senci.

According to Fiala’s report, it is almost certain that the woman who was found and later identified as Cervanová had not been raped before her death as the body carried no signs of brutal violence that would have been present if there had been a rape. The Týždeň weekly reported that the body was identified on the basis of jewellery the dead woman was wearing when found without Cervanová’s parents viewing the body.

According to the court records from 1982 and 1983, Cervanová had been raped about 10 times over the course of four hours – five times during the night after the kidnapping and five times in the morning before her drowning in the thermal lake near the brook.

“On the basis of the autopsy findings from the dead body of an unknown woman identified as Ľudmila Cervanová, it’s almost with certainty out of question that the named woman was raped in the way as described in the court verdict and prosecution statements and in the testimonies of the convicts and the witness,” Fiala wrote.

Another assertion from Fiala’s report that apparently contradicts the allegedly forced confessions is that the deceased woman was likely not to have consumed any alcohol and that the presence of alcohol detected in the body during the autopsy was most probably caused by natural decay processes. Some of the men confessed to having forced Cervanová to drink considerable amounts of white wine before the alleged rapes.

Fiala also stated that expert evaluations carried out during the investigation and court proceedings in 1982 were often misinterpreted and while some of the mistakes were not very serious others were very serious which combined could have considerably hindered and led to mistaken theories in the investigation of the case.

Last defendants are now free

Andrášik is the last of the sentenced men to be released from prison, being released from Leopoldov prison on October 14, 2009 – on parole. But his release has not been based on any progress in resolving the many questions that have been raised about his original conviction.

The request to release Ing. Andrášik was delivered to the District Court in Nitra by four public persons recognised by the court as trustworthy: Ing. Juraj Moravčík, deputy of the regional parliament in Nitra, PhDr. Ivan Mačura, a university teacher at the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, artist Fero Guldan and Ing. RNDr. Doc. Jozef Mikloško, DrSc., a former deputy prime minister of the Czechoslovak government responsible for human rights.

Andrášik had also appealed to Slovakia’s Constitutional Court, complaining that his right to court protection had been violated throughout the legal process, but the Constitutional Court dismissed his appeal in November 2009.

The most basic question whether all the years of imprisonment of Andrášik and the other men were justified by their guilt remains unanswered. Dostál seriously doubts that all the questions will someday be fully explained.

“On principle, I think that the truth will win in the end,” he said. “But sometimes it just takes too long. Nevertheless, that’s not a reason for us to stop trying."

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