Czech Court Ruling Hobbles Corruption Fight

    The Wall Street Journal
    By The Wall Street Journal

    The Czech Republic’s anti-corruption campaign has come up against a new hurdle–parliamentary immunity.

    Earlier this week the Czech Supreme Court ruled that three former lawmakers were exempt from prosecution because the crimes they allegedly committed happened inside parliament.

    Ivan Fuksa, Marek Snajdr and Petr Tluchor–who belonged to former prime minister Petr Necas’s Civic Democratic Party, or ODS–were accused of taking jobs at state businesses in return for dropping their opposition to tax increases and relinquishing their parliamentary seats.

    All three have denied the charges previously but none returned calls requesting comment on the latest ruling.

    In the abbreviated ruling released Tuesday, the Czech Supreme Court said immunity applied to anything that took place in the legislature, including resignations from parliamentary seats.

    The tersely worded release stoked speculation among local media and on the Internet that Czech lawmakers could enjoy immunity from prosecution against any crime as long as it was committed inside Prague’s historical parliament buildings.

    “A murder in the parliament basement isn’t the same as a murder in a train compartment,” Jana Hamplova, a lawyer-turned-writer, posted on her blog (in Czech), referring to Agatha Christie’s crime novel, Murder on the Orient Express.

    Under the Czech constitution immunity is mainly intended to protect Czech lawmakers against prosecution for voting or expressing their political views in parliament.

    An investigation into alleged corruption among high-ranking public figures kicked off in June with late night raids on government buildings, private homes and offices by more than 400 police officers. Police are still trying to identify the owners of tens of kilograms of gold and $8 million in cash they rounded up during a search of safe deposit boxes at a Prague bank. The investigation has transfixed Czechs and fanned hopes that attempts to root out corruption would bear fruit.

    Mr. Necas and his government resigned June 17 after the allegations broke, opening the way for a caretaker administration until general elections are held by the spring of next year.

    A month later the affair has mutated into a political crisis that could take months to resolve, pitting political parties against President Milos Zeman and his choice of an interim government earlier this month.

    The caretaker cabinet, made up of unelected technocrats and the president’s allies, is widely expected to lose a parliamentary confidence vote on Aug. 8. Although it would continue running the country until the next general election due in May, it may not be effective in fighting graft among public servants, said David Ondracka, who heads the Czech chapter of Transparency International, a watchdog monitoring corporate and political corruption.

    Political instability that has followed Mr. Necas’s resignation “will lead to stalling anti-corruption policy-making,” Mr. Ondracka said.

    The Supreme Court ruling prohibiting prosecution of the lawmakers was slammed by Hana Marvanova, a lawyer and former legislator, who said the wide definition of parliamentary immunity could give the impression that it was fine for lawmakers to seek bribes when bills were being debated.

    Ms. Marvanova described the Supreme Court ruling as being like “the Empire striking back against the Republic,” referring to Hollywood’s Star Wars films.

    “This ruling … breaches the principal of laws applying equally to all,” she said. “A lowly man can be prosecuted but some high-standing lawmaker not.”

    The country’s Supreme State Attorney, Ivan Istvan, said his office has yet to decide whether to reword its charges against the three lawmakers or drop them.

    “In our view these lawmakers by giving their posts in exchange for jobs in state institutions breached their vows to serve as members of parliament,” he said.

    The court is due to release details of its verdict by Monday, spokesman Petr Knötig said, adding that the court’s ruling doesn’t mean that lawmakers can go unpunished for crimes such as theft, blackmail or violent actions taking place inside parliament.

    Meanwhile, some politicians are determined to redouble their efforts to fight corruption in spite of the ruling.

    Libor Michalek, a Czech Senator who became a household name in 2010 when he drew public attention to the alleged misuse of funds at the country’s Environment Ministry, leading to the resignation of the then minister, said the Supreme Court ruling won’t halt his anti-graft drive.

    “We can’t give up, we can see holes in legislation and it’s an opportunity to fix them,” Mr. Michalek said.

    Mr. Istvan is continuing to pursue charges against Mr. Necas’s former top aide and two ex-military intelligence officers for they admitted spying on Mr. Necas’s estranged wife.

    Last weekend the ex-Premier admitted that he and Jana Nagyova, his former chief of staff, were romantically involved. Mr. Necas and other politicians have insisted, however, that awarding jobs at state companies is a standard part of the political horse-trading that happens in parliament.

    Through her lawyer Ms. Nagyova said that tailing Mr. Necas’s wife was aimed at protecting the wife from security threats. On Friday, a court freed Ms. Nagyova, who had been held in police custody since June 15, although she remains charged with abuse of power and bribery.

    Ms. Nagyova’s lawyer, Eduard Bruna, said that his client was acting in good faith to ensure the safety of the ex-Premier’s wife and that she denied any wrongdoing over bribery charges.


    By: Leos Rousek
    Posted: July 19, 2013, 7:35 pm

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