President’s final New Year’s address includes amnesty releasing prisoners and halting long-running cases

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

In many ways, Václav Klaus’s last ever New Year’s Day address as Czech president followed the usual script. But it also contained one big surprise – the announcement of an amnesty that will see a quarter of those serving time in Czech jails freed early and the halting of some cases that have run for years.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Much of President Václav Klaus’s 10th and final New Year’s Day address to the Czech nation followed what had become the usual pattern. Alongside wishing citizens a successful 12 months, he warned of where society was going wrong and took swipes at his opponents.

But there was also a sting in the tail of the 12-minute televised speech from Prague Castle, when Mr. Klaus, who steps down in March, declared the first amnesty of his decade in office.

“Dear fellow citizens, today 20 years have passed since the independent Czech Republic appeared on the map of the world. Allow me, before concluding my address, to announce that I have decided on the occasion of this anniversary to announce a partial amnesty that will come into effect on January 2.”

Over 7,000 of the Czech Republic’s prison population of 23,000 are set for early release. These include those sentenced to less than a year in jail and a small number of prisoners over the age of 75 whose stretches are for 10 years or less.

In addition, suspended sentences of up to two years have been rescinded, while cases that have been dragging through the courts for at least eight years and for which the maximum sentence would be 10 years will be dropped.

Critics say the latter measure – in several cases involving alleged instances of large-scale corruption – could be seen as a reward for obstruction, while others have questioned the types of offences forgiven. Hana Marvanová is a lawyer and former politician.

Illustrative photo: CTK
“I think it’s very extensive. What really surprised me was that the criterion for the pardoning was established according to the length of sentence. Not only have crimes of negligence been pardoned – so have a number of deliberate crimes.”

The amnesty has been welcomed by the prison authorities, as it will go a long way to easing overcrowding in the country’s jails. However, they have not been releasing inmates en masse on Wednesday, as those concerned have to apply individually for release. Petr Dohnal is general director of the Czech Republic’s prison service.

“As soon as a court decides to release a particular prisoner then the machinery of the prison service is set in motion. The prisoner undergoes a medical examination and goes through other procedures – and is then subsequently freed.”

The courts will rule inside prisons, with hearings expected to take a couple of hours each. Some convicts won’t need to gather their belongings just yet, but all those concerned can expect to be going home within weeks or months at the latest, say the authorities.