WNeither regular large-scale demonstrations nor warnings from Brussels can stop Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico from restructuring Slovakia's justice system according to his ideas. With the votes of its coalition of the two left-wing parties Smer and Hlas and the nationalist SNS, parliament passed criminal law reform on Thursday. The core of the amendment is lower penalties for economic crimes and the abolition of the special prosecutor's office that was set up to investigate such crimes.
Fico and his partners made criminal justice reform a top priority after taking office in October. Your accusation: The special public prosecutor's office is an instrument of the current opposition to “persecute” political opponents. The strongest opposition party, the progressive-liberal PS, as well as other liberal and conservative parties see it differently. They see the reform as an attempt to protect politicians in the governing coalition and people close to them from prosecution or at least to mitigate it.
A system from “our people”?
After the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in spring 2018, various cases became known in which high-ranking police officers, prosecutors and judges acted on behalf of entrepreneurs close to the Smer party. According to Fico's opponents, who had to give up his post as prime minister prematurely a few weeks after the murder and only returned to the head of government five and a half years later, this is a system run by “our people”.
The opposition includes Smer MP Tibor Gašpar among them. He had to resign as police chief after the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová and is now awaiting trial on charges including influencing investigations. In the parliamentary session on Thursday, Gašpar introduced numerous amendments on behalf of the government factions.
Independent experts also believe that the current criminal law is in need of reform and that the penalties are “draconian”. But they too are bothered by the fact that the coalition wants to selectively reduce the penalties. According to the newspaper Sme, a judge who demands a bribe of 300,000 euros would only have to go to prison for three to eight years instead of ten to 15 years. Anyone who embezzled 30,000 euros of municipal funds could also expect a significantly lighter sentence.
PS chairman Michal Šimečka spoke at a rally about the “perversity” that a manufacturer of cannabis ointments was still threatened with 15 years in prison. On Thursday, an approved amendment reducing the statute of limitations for rape from 20 to 10 years drew cries of “shame” from opposition ranks.
Rallies are intended to mobilize for the presidential election
On January 22nd, the EU Commission sent words of warning to the Slovakian government. “EU law says that a state that does not guarantee protection against corruption cannot receive funding,” said Values Commissioner Věra Jourová. The head of the European Public Prosecutor's Office, Laura Kövesi, had previously written a letter to the EU Commission in which she pointed out the “serious risk of violating the principles of the rule of law in Slovakia”. The European Parliament was also concerned.
In December, the opposition was able to prevent the law from being passed quickly. But the coalition, which only has a narrow majority of 79 out of 150 seats, was not dissuaded from its goal. The opposition increasingly shifted its energy to rallies. On Wednesday alone, around 18,000 people gathered in front of the parliament in the capital Bratislava.
The demonstrations also serve to mobilize ahead of the presidential election in March. While Parliament President Peter Pellegrini from the Smer split Hlas was previously considered the favorite, the opposition candidate and former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok has recently caught up in the polls. The crowd outside Parliament vilified Pellegrini as Fico's “bag carrier”. Outgoing President Zuzana Čaputová is expected to veto the adopted law. But it is also certain that Parliament will overrule this.