Catholic priest will not go to court

President Vaclav Havel

The case of the Catholic priest who was charged with defamation of race, nation and belief after he publicly criticized the communist party will never get to court. President Vaclav Havel used his constitutional right to halt criminal proceedings against Father Vojtech Protivinsky just hours before the state attorney dropped charges against him as well. The highly publicized Protivinsky case is now closed but it has left a great many open questions. Daniela Lazarova has the story.

As he publicly thanked the President, father Protivinsky himself expressed the dilemma surrounding the developments of the past few hours :

"When I first learned about the charges it occurred to me that if I were tried and found guilty the President might intervene in my favour. I would like to thank him for his interest in my case and for his prompt action. However having said that I am even more grateful to the state attorney for setting an important precedent and sending a signal to the public that it is not a crime to criticize the actions of the Communists. Had I been tried and found guilty it would have been a bad blow for freedom of speech in the Czech Republic regardless of my own fate."

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the President's decision to halt the criminal proceedings. His action caused friction between the President's Office and the Justice Ministry which complained that the President was undermining the role of the judiciary by intervening and halting the proceedings before the state attorney had even taken a stand on the matter. Others, who sympathize with the priest, said the case should have come to court so that the priest could have defended his action in public and revealed the absurdity of the charges. President Havel's spokesman Ladislav Spacek gave the following explanation for the President's action :

"The President acts on the principle that he will not stand by and tolerate absurdities. If it is in his power to stop them he will take action to do so. This case particularly shows the usefulness of his prerogative to halt charges."

Again, not everyone agrees. Commentators note that although the chief investigator clearly made a mistake in filing the charges, it was up to the state attorney to put things right. Vaclav Zak, editor in chief of the political bi-monthly Listy feels that the President should only intervene after the court has reached a verdict .

"The President should not have this Constitutional right in the first place. He should not have the power to halt proceedings. I think he should retain the privilege to grant pardons because the courts must decide according to the law and there are cases and circumstances when the President's pardon is really needed. But he should not be able to halt proceedings before the court has reached a verdict or even before the case has come to court. He has done that on many previous occasions and his actions have always evoked much comment and controversy mainly because the President reveals his preferences. As someone who is supposed to be above political parties the President should not reveal his preferences so visibly. "

Meanwhile the Communist Party, which filed the charges against the Catholic priest had its own interpretation of the President's action. It said that you could only pardon someone who is guilty - and complained that in the present environment anyone could throw stones at the communist party and get away with it.