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Watchdog: State of judiciary is critical

THE ANNIVERSARY of the Velvet Revolution on November 17 has further highlighted concerns about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia, with political ethics watchdogs, media commentators and activists suggesting that it has failed to live up to the ideals of the revolution. That mistrust in judicial institutions continues to prevail in Slovakia is demonstrated by a survey published in July 2012 by the Institute for Public Affairs think tank that revealed that 37 percent of those polled trusted the Supreme Court, led by Štefan Harabin, while 54 percent said they do not.

THE ANNIVERSARY of the Velvet Revolution on November 17 has further highlighted concerns about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia, with political ethics watchdogs, media commentators and activists suggesting that it has failed to live up to the ideals of the revolution. That mistrust in judicial institutions continues to prevail in Slovakia is demonstrated by a survey published in July 2012 by the Institute for Public Affairs think tank that revealed that 37 percent of those polled trusted the Supreme Court, led by Štefan Harabin, while 54 percent said they do not.

Justice Minister Tomáš Borec might become the first minister of Robert Fico’s government whom the opposition try to have sacked for what Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) head Pavol Frešo called his reluctance to support an opposition-initiated parliamentary debate over the state of the judiciary, as well as a lack of action to improve this state.

Borec said that his department is working on what he called serious and deep reforms in the judiciary, which, according to him, the previous management of the ministry did not dare to undertake. He also traded barbs with his predecessor Lucia Žitňanská of the SDKÚ, suggesting that she is trying to fire up the topic ahead of a congress of her own party. Žitňanská said that the opposition’s demand for a special parliamentary session over the state of the judiciary was legitimate, given the judiciary’s serious condition.

Zuzana Wienk, director of the political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance, confirmed that the state of Slovakia’s judiciary is very serious.

“The judiciary is ruled by power and financial interest groups, which have privatised the system for their benefit,” Wienk told The Slovak Spectator, adding that for some politicians the defunct judiciary bodes well since they can avoid being made accountable for their controversial acts.

The thwarted session

Three opposition parties, the SDKÚ, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Most-Híd, had initiated a special session of parliament over the state of the judiciary, with Žitňanská pointing to what she called recent controversial court decisions, for example the 16-year-old case of former president Michal Kováč versus one-time spy boss Ivan Lexa.

The court ruled that Kováč must pay damages of €3,319 to Lexa and send him an apology for statements he originally made in 1996, when he was the country’s president, concerning the case of the abduction of his son, Michal Kováč Jr, in 1995.

According to Žitňanská, this case and similar rulings reinforce the feeling that justice is accessible only for a chosen few, and ultimately diminishes the public’s faith in the system and the rule of law. An independent judiciary was one of the main demands for change that November 17, 1989, brought, Žitňanská noted, as quoted by the SITA newswire on November 13.

Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška said on the same day that even if the proposal by opposition deputies to have a special session was legitimate, it is also highly irresponsible since parliament is scheduled to tackle the 2013 state budget next week and the deputies face a marathon discussion. Paška also said that the fact that only three of the five opposition parties supported the call testifies to the ineffectiveness of the opposition, SITA wrote. Deputies from the ruling Smer refused to approve the programme for the special session, which effectively blocked the debate. Now the opposition is calling for Borec to step down. Given Smer's majority in parliament, however, efforts to get Borec recalled are likely to prove futile.

Call for Borec’s head

The government’s inactivity with regards to improving conditions within the judiciary is among the reasons why the opposition wants to have Borec sacked, according to Most-Híd leader Béla Bugár.

“There is much to discuss,” Bugár said, suggesting that critics of Supreme Court President Harabin were removed from the judicial council, the top judiciary body of the country, SITA reported.

According to Žitňanská, the fact that the justice minister himself rejected the debate is a strong enough reason for submitting a proposal for his recall.

“It is a legitimate right of parliament to ask the government what it wants to do,” Žitňanská said, as quoted by SITA.

Borec called the opposition’s efforts ‘political folklore’, adding that the topic of the judiciary is a serious one and it is necessary to discuss it, but in his opinion the discussion should take place at a “professional” level. He added that at the moment there is nothing to solve at the level of parliament. As for the measures he said his department is working on, Borec stated that “these will benefit the people and it will not be a fight with a single man, as performed by Mrs Žitňanská during the time when she was a minister”. The minister also said that the problems of the judiciary are a result of insensitive judicial experiments and politicisation, while he added that one should not claim that the judiciary does not function solely on the basis of a couple of cases.

The concerns

“I am sorry to see that the calls for debate at a professional level are a kind of cover-up for preserving the status quo, the state which prevails, and which in my opinion is very dangerous because the judiciary has become a state within a state ruled by narrow power groups, which are abusing this public power for their benefit,” Wienk said.

According to Wienk, this situation cannot be solved by an expert-level debate.

“The only tool that could help the judiciary is wide public debate and analysis of the [present] conditions, which would be followed by an in-depth reform,” said Wienk. “I am afraid that the stance of the current minister of justice only helps to preserve the current status quo, which is the judiciary being ruled by power groups.”

In Slovakia there is not sufficient political power to support changes within the judiciary that would enable it to become an independent public power that defends the law, Wienk said.

“What I regret the most is that this appeal by Borec not to intervene politically into the judiciary in fact serves to preserve the current conditions there,” Wienk said, adding that the Justice Ministry is scrapping reform steps that would allow new people to enter the judiciary based on the criteria of open competition.

As for steps necessary to mend the current state, Wienk suggests that the situation is quite serious and until the citizens of this country support the existence of a new political culture and a new political generation that would bring about a new concept for the functioning of the judiciary, “we will not have effective tools to repair this huge problem”.

The process should involve the reform of the prosecution and police in order to secure independent criminal prosecution so that the judges who are abusing their power are penalised and expelled from the system, Wienk said.

According to Wienk, it would be necessary to introduce a fair evaluation of judges’ caseloads while assessing the real burden of the courts since, when compared with some other countries in Europe and the developed world, Slovakia has a much higher number of judges per capita.

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