Lower house makes umpteenth attempt to abolish lawmakers’ life-long immunity from prosecution

Photo: Filip Jandourek

The lower house of Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill which would abolish lawmakers’ lifelong immunity from prosecution. Under the present amendment deputies and senators would only have immunity for the duration of their mandate, unless their peers vote to strip them of it. Although the bill’s approval is seen as a step in the right direction, its fate in the Senate is far from certain.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Getting Czech lawmakers to curb their above-standard rights and privileges is proving a long and uphill battle. While many are ready to pay lip-service to the issue, voting against their own best interests is another matter. After 18 failed attempts, the lower house on Wednesday passed a bill which would restrict lawmakers’ immunity to the duration of their mandate. A proposal that it should only pertain to their addresses on Parliament ground failed to win approval. Even in its moderate form, the bill’s fate in the Senate is far from certain. Only last year a similar proposal was rejected in the upper house on the strength of two votes.

Moreover the proposed amendment leaves a lot to be desired. Czech MPs still enjoy above-standard rights and privileges, such as the right to retain their mandate come what may–even while serving a prison sentence. While in theory this could be considered a question of political ethics, in practice it presents a major problem.

Two seats in the Czech lower house are now conspicuously vacant. One belongs to MP David Rath who has been in detention on corruption charges since last May. Mr. Rath refused to give up his mandate and under Czech law there is no means of forcing him to do so. Despite being locked up, he is being paid a royal salary including money for representation, travel and support staff. Parliament deputy Roman Pekarek is due to begin serving a five-year sentence for corruption on Friday. Although he has absented himself from the lower house since the court passed a definitive verdict he too has refused to relinquish his mandate and will retain not only his seat in Parliament but a monthly salary amounting to around 80 thousand crowns.

David Rath,  photo: Filip Jandourek
A group of MPs across the board are now ringing the alarm, drumming up support for a change of legislation. Petr Gazdik from the governing TOP 09 party says a new order is long overdue:

“It should work the same way as in local government. If a mayor is convicted in a legally binding verdict they automatically lose the right to continue in office. So should a convicted MP automatically lose their mandate.”

Although the solution appears to be obvious, winning support for a bill which would strip convicted lawmakers of their mandate is proving to be a big problem. A newly drafted amendment to the law tabled by the Civic Democrats therefore only goes half way, proposing that deputies who are convicted of a crime in a legally binding verdict would automatically lose their wages. However even this straightforward proposal is dogged by problems. The Civic Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats are wrangling over who should take the credit for such a move and whose proposal should be allowed to pass. Instead of a smooth passage through Parliament the bill will therefore require further debate with possible approval in March after which it will go the Senate and then need to be signed into law by the president. In the meantime deputy Pekarek will be the best paid prisoner in the country and deputy Rath, whom it will not concern at all, may continue to draft legislation from his prison-cell.