President grants pardon to plane hijacker

The hijacked plane CSA Iljusin 18 on the file photo from May 10, 1978, photo: CTK

The Czech president's powers are largely constitutional, but one area where he can exercise real influence is in granting pardons. The question of who should be given a pardon and under what circumstances has long been a subject of controversy, and this week, the issue has once again hit the headlines. President Vaclav Klaus has granted pardons to eight people, including a man who in 1978 hijacked a passenger plane in order to escape across the Iron Curtain to West Germany.

The hijacked plane CSA Iljusin 18 on the file photo from May 10, 1978, photo: CTK
Twenty-six years ago two friends, Radomir Sebesta and Josef Katrinak, both in their mid twenties, decided to escape from communist Czechoslovakia to West Germany at any cost. On May 10, 1978, they managed to sneak stolen explosives on board a Czech Airlines plane on a regular domestic flight. Among the 35 passengers on board were also Josef Katrincak's wife and two children. At 7.30 pm, the Czechoslovak Airlines Ilyushin touched down in the German city of Frankfurt instead of its scheduled destination of Brno.

Given the two men's drastic methods, the West German authorities were not exactly welcoming, and the hijackers were sent to a German prison for three years. In 1983, Czechoslovak courts sentenced the two men and Josef Katrinak's wife Anna, to long prison terms in absentia, but the West German authorities refused to extradite them.

All of them stayed abroad and could not visit their families back in the Czech Republic even after the fall of communism because they would still face prosecution. That's why Radomir Sebesta, now aged 52, applied for a presidential pardon - to be able to visit his ailing parents back home.

President Klaus's secretary Ladislav Jakl explains why Mr Klaus decided to grant pardon to Radomir Sebesta.

Josef Katrinak and Radomir Sebesta on the file photo from May 11, 1978 in Frankfurt am Main, photo: CTK
"The man took part in a plane hijacking, using explosives, which is a serious criminal act. But at the time of the act he was still young and his accomplices were the prime movers of the hijack. There is another important factor: Mr Sebesta defused the explosive on board without the knowledge of his accomplices."

Mr Jakl added that according to material available to the presidential office, Radomir Sebesta only found out that the explosives really existed once he had boarded the plane.

The daily Mlada Fronta Dnes wrote that Mr Sebesta had unsuccessfully applied for a pardon in the past, during the term of the former Czech president, Vaclav Havel.

President Vaclav Klaus has granted 25 pardons since taking office in March last year. His predecessor, Vaclav Havel, was often criticised for dispensing too many pardons and sometimes to controversial figures. Mr Klaus said shortly after his election last year that he would only grant pardons in exceptional cases.