Corruption trial ends in not guilty verdict

IT WAS one of the most keenly observed cases involving suspected corruption of a public official and one of the hottest cases that the now-abolished Special Court had handled. But six years after an alleged crime was first reported by a businessman to the police, the main defendants in the case were on March 16 cleared by the Senate of the Specialised Criminal Court, the successor of the Special Court. The court, sitting in Pezinok, said that it had not been proved that the act for which the two were originally convicted had actually happened.

IT WAS one of the most keenly observed cases involving suspected corruption of a public official and one of the hottest cases that the now-abolished Special Court had handled. But six years after an alleged crime was first reported by a businessman to the police, the main defendants in the case were on March 16 cleared by the Senate of the Specialised Criminal Court, the successor of the Special Court. The court, sitting in Pezinok, said that it had not been proved that the act for which the two were originally convicted had actually happened.

Back in January 2007, the Special Court sentenced Pavol Bielik, a former mayor of the Bratislava suburb of Rača and one-time senior official with the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), to five years in prison on corruption charges and banned him from holding public office for seven years. Bielik’s alleged accomplice, businessman Jaroslav Šuščák, was sentenced to 4.5 years in jail. The Special Court in fact sentenced Bielik twice, but the Supreme Court cancelled both the original verdicts and returned the case each time to the court for retrial.

Special prosecutor Ján Hrivňák has appealed against the verdict which freed the defendants, saying that it is not a good signal to those who might potentially report a crime to the police. The main witness in the case, Pavol Kollár, has also said that after this verdict he would not turn to the police again.

“Today, I would not go to the police,” Kollár said, as quoted by the Sme daily. “It is a hopeless defeat for society.”

The head of the court senate explained the not-guilty verdict by referring to the fact that the Specialised Criminal Court was obliged to follow an earlier, legally binding, decision issued by the Supreme Court after it quashed the original verdict for a second time.

The Supreme Court argued that several findings of the Special Court were unclear and that the court had unconditionally accepted the testimony of the main witness.

The Supreme Court, according to Sme, also suggested that there could have been political interference in the case and that Slovakia’s SIS intelligence service could have been involved.

The Supreme Court also warned that there had been mistakes in documenting the act of taking the bribe, which was not ultimately handed over, and suggested that the basic principle of the Slovak penal code is that in case of doubt the court should act for the benefit of the accused. Thus unproved guilt has the same significance as proven innocence, the SITA newswire wrote.

Back in 2004 Pavol Kollár’s Invest In company had wanted to pursue a construction project in Rača for which he needed the local council’s approval. Šuščák, a businessman, contacted him and told him that nothing was possible without a bribe; the price was allegedly set at Sk5 million (approximately €165,000, at current exchange rates). After meeting with Šuščák and Bielik, Kollár turned to the police. Allegedly, the Rača mayor asked for the bribe by drawing the number ‘5’ on a piece of paper, according to Sme.

The Supreme Court argued that there was no direct phone recording in which Bielik asked for the bribe. According to Sme, the court found that there was not sufficient evidence against Šuščák either, though it did not question that he did want money from Kollár. According to phone intercepts used as evidence in court, Kollár told Šuščák that “just as we agreed, I saw the mayor to check whether it is those 5 percent [of the investment]” and Šuščák responded that “I have no reason to say anything else”. Then Kollár said that “the mayor wanted the money up front, but I tried to convince him to divide it into two parts – one for the planning permission, and the other for the construction permit.”

Then, according to the phone intercepts, which were reprinted by Sme on March 17, Kollár said that the mayor wasn’t very forthcoming and said “five percent”, while Šuščák responded “he certainly pressed also for some plot for himself”.

Šuščák, who acted as the mayor’s bag carrier, also said “I'm just doing this as favour to the mayor, because he is doing other things for me. I have other companies that sort of do engineering activities, and blah blah blah.”

Kollár then turned to the police and from that point on recorded all conversations concerning the case. However, the bribe was never handed over because the information about the investigation was leaked to Bielik.

The case was first heard at the Special Court in November 2005, as one of that court’s first cases involving high-level political corruption.

Michaela Stanková contributed to this report

Please see also Whither the whistleblowers?

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