European Parliament ponders Czech MEP's fate

Vladimir Zelezny

While Italy has Silvio Berlusconi the Czech Republic has Vladimir Zelezny - TV magnate turned politician. Mr Zelezny is the former general director of the popular commercial station TV Nova and currently a European Parliament member for the Independent Democrats, a party that he himself founded. Under investigation for tax evasion amounting to 6.8 million crowns (some 280,000 US dollars), Vladimir Zelezny faces being stripped of his parliamentary immunity.

The Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether to allow him to be released for prosecution by the Czech authorities. But the Austrian social democrat Maria Berger who chairs the committee, said that they were not yet ready to come to a decision.

Czech Radio correspondent Pavla Kvapilova is on the line from Brussels. Pavla, the European Parliament was requested to strip Mr Zelezny of his immunity a year ago, does it usually take so long for it to make a decision on such issues?

Since this case is quite complicated, let's go back to the history first. As you just said, the controversial TV Nova director needs to have his parliamentary immunity lifted to face criminal charges of fraud. The European Parliament received the first request in August last year, sent by Judge Dusan Kvaska because Mr Zelezny brought some valuable paintings into the country and allegedly failed to pay customs duty.

At the time, when the first request arrived in the European Parliament, the legal experts at the parliament were saying that this case was simple and predicted that it would be solved within two or three months. But we're now in September 2005 and there's no decision yet. I asked Maria Berger about that. She explained that two more requests to lift Mr Zelezny's immunity were made later:

"The problem is that there are three cases now. We have finally combined the three cases and then it took some time to formulate the answers, to get responses, and so on. Then, we had the summer break, so it took a little bit longer than originally foreseen."

Maria Berger says she now has everything she needs, as well as the information she asked for at the Czech Justice Ministry and the Senate. So, she's ready to make her recommendation on Mr Zelezny.

But why did Mrs Berger not put that recommendation forward at Wednesday's meeting? Are there any new developments?

Well, we can't answer that because the procedure follows very strict rules. Practically everything is confidential and meetings are being held behind closed doors. On Wednesday I spoke to the spokesperson for the legal affairs committee, Federico de Girolamo, and he said that the new rules state that the dossier has to be kept secret until the vote is held in the plenary. All that we know is what we are being told by the Czech members of the committee; that's how we learned that Mrs Berger has not made her recommendation yet and that is also how we know that Mr Zelezny will probably not have any other hearing before the committee to defend himself.

So how can we expect this case to continue? What are the next steps?

There will be two votes, says Maria Berger:

"The timetable is that we will vote on it now on the 5th or the 6th of October in the committee and in the plenary at the end of October."

Photo: European Commission
We should stress that the decision of the legal affairs committee is very important. In the majority of cases, the plenary has followed its decision.

Judging from the atmosphere in the European Parliament, what decision will it make in the end?

Well, it's been changing in waves. At the beginning, the atmosphere was that Mr Zelezny would be deprived of his immunity. Then, he had a hearing in the committee and 'scared' some of the European legislators with his description of the Czech reality. But now we more often hear that he will most probably lose his immunity. A strong motivating factor is that the Czech Senate decided to strip him of immunity and give him up for investigation.

Finally, I'm curious to know how you expect Czech MEPs will vote...

I talked to some of them yesterday and many are waiting for the committee's recommendation, including deputies from the opposition Civic Democrats (ODS). Some legislators have already decided how they will vote, such as the Social Democrats. Richard Falbr already voted on this issue in the Czech Senate and was in favour of lifting Mr Zelezny's immunity. He says he would not change his mind. His colleague Libor Roucek will do the same.

But generally, we can say that there isn't much interest in this case in the European Parliament among the group of Czech deputies and even less among the others. But that's typical for all immunity cases in the European Parliament - it's mainly the media of the home country of the deputy involved, who are interested.