Presidential amnesty slammed for letting big fish off the hook

Photo: CTK

An amnesty declared by President Václav Klaus on New Year’s Day has come under fire from all sides. Most experts agree the president was right in granting amnesty to people sentenced to less than one year in jail, as well as to elderly prisoners serving terms for more serious crimes. But Mr Klaus’s decision to halt prosecution of cases older than eight years, regardless of the nature of the crime, has earned him serious criticism.

Photo: CTK
The controversial second article of the amnesty ends the prosecution of all cases, save those where the defendant is on the run, which began more than eight years ago and for which the maximum sentence would be 10 years.

This covers a number of major cases of alleged economic crimes. The amnesty will halt the prosecution of five former managers of Union Bank which went under in 2003, and some 130,000 people lost their savings worth over 17 billion crowns as a result. The president’s decision will also drop the prosecution of several managers of the fraudulent construction firm H-System who promised people affordable housing but instead stripped them of nearly one billion crowns.

Other cases slated for closure include that of former managers of the Poldi steel works, accused of insider trading, former managers of the Trend and Marcia investment funds who were charged with asset stripping, or the case of the former head of the Czech football association František Chvalovský who was charged with fraud over unpaid credit. Several former employees of Komerční banka, the bank that provided the loan, were charged with him, and their prosecution will also end.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
When speaking about his motivation, President Václav Klaus told the daily Mladá fronta Dnes he had no particular case in mind when he made the decision. The president’s secretary, and head of his political department Ladislav Jakl referred to rulings of the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“According to the European Court of Human Rights, the state has an obligation to conclude any prosecution within six years. The state is to blame if some cases cannot be closed in reasonable time. Mr President however thought that six years was too short, and raised the deadline to eight years.”

Few experts doubt the benefits of the amnesty when it comes to releasing people who committed minor crimes and offences. But the decision to end the prosecution of all cases that have dragged for more than eight years – including those of serious economic crime – has come under severe criticism across the board. The head of the Supreme Court, Iva Brožová said the amnesty was going to destroy the society’s legal consciousness, while senator and former justice of the Constitutional Court justice Eliška Wagnerová said its scope was scandalous.

Photo: CTK
The president’s decision has been denounced by the opposition while the coalition TOP 09 party said they refused to bear any responsibility for the consequences. Even members of the Civic Democrats, a party which Mr Klaus founded and whose current leader, Prime Minister Petr Nečas countersigned the document, express reservations about the move. Civic Democrat MP Ivana Weberová said she was going to ask the prime minister for an explanation.

“I approve of the amnesty but not in such a scope, only for less serious offences and crimes. From my point of view, this is too much and I will certainly question Mr Nečas about the reason.”

Some commentators believe the amnesty is a symbolic end to the 1990s when many shady privatization deals were made. Jiří Přibáň is a professor at Cardiff Law School in the UK.

Jiří Přibáň,  photo: Czech Television
“It’s hard to detect any philosophy or a general pattern behind the amnesty which is another reason why people will always speculate about the true motives of President Klaus who is associated with the privatization and economic crime of the 1990s.”

Václav Klaus’s second and last term as head of state will conclude in March. The uproar caused by his decision might in the future lead to amendments of the constitution that would limit the powers of his successors in this particular field.