IN A RARE expression of unanimity – albeit one that had previously eluded them for almost 20 years – Slovak parliamentarians voted on July 26 to abolish their own immunity from criminal prosecution. All the 144 deputies present in the 150-member house voted for the amendment to the constitution.
MPs also backed a corresponding change in the Criminal Code. The new rules will come into effect on September 1, the day that Slovakia celebrates 20 years since it adopted its modern-day constitution.
Observers noted that the change, which was backed by all parties, leaves only judges as essentially above the law. Achieving the change, which followed several unsuccessful attempts over the years, required a constitutional majority – the support of at least 90 MPs.
“It is a positive move for society because in the past we have witnessed abuses of immunity,” political scientist Miroslav Kusý said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
From September, members of parliament will enjoy immunity from prosecution only for statements they make in parliament and for their votes in parliament. Nevertheless, parliament will still have to grant approval before any MP suspected of a crime can be taken into custody. If police directly witness and apprehend a member of parliament in the course of committing a crime, they must notify the speaker of parliament and the head of parliament’s mandate and immunity committee immediately after arresting him or her.
Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška of Smer party commented that that the change could bring a new political culture and suggested that in autumn he would be ready to open the issue of cancelling the immunity enjoyed by judges. They are now the only citizens who remain shielded from criminal prosecution. Some prominent figures have called for this to change.
“I do not see any reason why one category of citizens should stand above the law,” said MP and former interior minister Daniel Lipšic, as quoted by SITA, adding that he does not know of any other country where “judges have such broad immunity” and that judges should be exempt only for their judicial decisions and activities connected to their work.
Paška said that in September that the latest round of nominations to the Judicial Council, the representative body of the judiciary, should be completed and that the issue can then be addressed. He said he is confident that “we will be able to prepare another revision to the constitution whereby we cancel judges’ immunity from criminal prosecution”.
MPs’ immunity from prosecution for misdemeanours such as traffic offences was eliminated in February this year. There may yet be more changes to come.
“I have suggested that we do not stop at the cancellation of [MPs’] immunity from criminal prosecution, but look at additional modifications,” Paška stated, as quoted by SITA, adding that he plans to summon a working group as early as next week to discuss additional issues such as property declarations as well as the law regulating the work of MPs.
Political analysts all praised parliament’s action.
“It is certainly good that after decades we have erased a category of super-humans through the cancellation of immunity,” Ján Baránek, a political scientist with the Polis polling agency, told SITA. But he added that he was certain that the members of parliament did not make the move with much enthusiasm, rather through gritted teeth.
Kusý agreed, saying that the elimination of MPs’ immunity came primarily as the result of public pressure.