Former top official accused of plotting to kill journalist

Karel Srba, photo CTK

Police arrested four people on Monday in connection with an alleged plot to kill a top investigative journalist. The four - who include a former senior government official - allegedly conspired to kill Sabina Slonkova, a journalist with the leading daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, in the most high-profile case in the Czech Republic's post-Communist history. Rob Cameron has the story.

Karel Srba, photo CTK
Czech Television announces on its main evening news programme that former Foreign Ministry secretary Karel Srba is in custody, after allegedly ordering the killing of investigative journalist Sabina Slonkova. Police sources said one of the men hired to kill her cracked under pressure shortly before carrying out the alleged killing, and turned himself in to police. They immediately warned Ms Slonkova that her life was in danger, and she went into hiding. I spoke to her earlier by telephone.

"I found out exactly two weeks ago. It was July 9th, in the evening. The doorbell rang, and I opened it to find officers from the anti-organised crime unit. They told me they'd arrested someone who'd admitted to being hired to kill me. My initial reaction was the same as anyone else's would be in that situation - it was so ridiculous I refused to believe it. But unfortunately it wasn't a joke, and the contract to kill me was real."

With the help of the would-be assassin, police spent the next two weeks tracing leads and putting together the connections. The man was told to report to his accomplice that everything had gone to plan, and that Slonkova was dead. Phones were tapped, people were followed. Sensationally, the trail led to Karel Srba, a former senior civil servant at the Foreign Ministry.

Sabina Slonkova, photo: CTK
Sabina Slonkova covers security and political issues for Mlada Fronta Dnes, and had written extensively over the last year about financial scandals and alleged corruption at the Foreign Ministry. The most recent case involved the rental of a large Czech-owned building in Moscow, a scandal for which Karel Srba was forced to resign last year. Former Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, who hired Mr Srba in 1998, denied any knowledge of his former colleague's actions in a statement issued on Monday.

The sensational allegations have received widespread coverage in the Czech media, waking the papers from their summer lull. But the allegations against Mr Srba remain just that - allegations, although you wouldn't believe it from reading today's headlines. Commentator Vaclav Zak says they've jumped the gun a bit.

"The media is again acting as if accusation is proof. But of course, Mr Srba is not very popular, it's true."

Is something like this, in this day and age, possible in the Czech Republic? That a senior official could order the killing of a journalist? This isn't Belarus, is it?

"It is really a very sad story, but I'm afraid it could be true. Because the use of force for solving problems, it's a pity but it's common in this country at the present time."

Maybe not in politics but in business.

"Mainly in business, but in personal relations as well. There are people who order contract killers to kill their wives."

Vaclav Zak, editor in chief of the bi-monthly Listy, ending that report by Rob Cameron.