Czech anti-corruption drive finally gaining momentum

The past few months have brought increasing evidence of the fact that after years of futile efforts the anti-corruption drive in the Czech Republic is finally producing results. Within a relatively short space of time the police has sought and gained permission to prosecute four parliament deputies and is said to be working on several other high profile cases.

Vít Bárta, Jaroslav Škárka, David Rath, Otto Chaloupka and most recently the deputy chair of the lower house Vlasta Parkanová; the list of parliament deputies whom the police have asked to prosecute. In all but the last case – on which the lower chamber is to vote next Tuesday – the request was granted. Inside sources claim that the police are completing work on two other big cases involving two more members of parliament. The speed with which heads are rolling following years of inactivity has surprised many parliament deputies and may have left some quaking in their shoes.

It has also raised the question what is behind the police’s new-found ability to act. Police President Petr Lessy says that systemic chances in the work of the force have finally given investigators the chance to follow up big cases and produce results without any interference from those high up.

“Nothing unusual is happening. Investigators are just doing their job. The sudden spate of cases is the result of systemic changes which no longer make it compulsory for investigators to report on cases they are working on.”

Foto: Barbora Kmentová
In the past all “sensitive” cases had to be reported to superiors. Since this directive was scrapped investigators have revved up their activities and are producing results fast. In the first five months of this year they have opened and are investigating as many cases as they did in the entire previous year – and the financial losses caused by these cases is significantly higher, indicating that the police are now going for the big fish, rather than the small fry.

Ondřej Kundra, an editor for the weekly magazine Respekt, says changes in key posts have also helped untie investigators’ hands.

“This can also be attributed to a significant change of attitude at the High State Attorney’s Office and at the Interior Ministry. Both institutions are now headed by officials who do not interfere in the work of the police.”

The result of this new policy is that news of fresh corruption cases involving MPs erupt like bombshells on the Czech political scene and while most parliamentary parties maintain that the police must be allowed to do its work “come what may” there are now jokes about “handing over an MP for prosecution every Tuesday –the day on which the Immunity and Mandate Committee holds its sessions. The police’s request for the lower house to allow the prosecution of deputy speaker Vlasta Parkanová nonetheless proved too much for her party colleague, finance minister Miroslav Kalousek who called it a witch-hunt and accused the police of overstepping the mark in their eagerness to deliver results.

Petr Lessy
Police president Petr Lessy countered that the police would not have acted without good reason.

“I have not seen the respective police files, but as far as I was informed the police are proceeding as they should. They have enough evidence to prosecute and are only taking the case a step further. We are not labelling anyone guilty –just setting the wheels in motion so that innocence or guilt can be proven by an independent court. Moreover all our steps are overseen by a state attorney.”

As the initial shock over this latest police request wears off an increasing number of MPs say they will open the way for prosecution. After years of paying lip service to the issue it would be hard for them to justify any other position. And, as the number of prosecuted – and in some cases convicted MPs mounts – deputies are debating a change to the law which would make those pronounced guilty surrender their seat in Parliament.