President's pardons evoke criticism

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Throughout his three terms in office President Havel has liberally used his constitutional right to pardon people who face criminal proceedings or a jail sentence. Every year the President pardons approximately one hundred people either before or after the courts have reached a verdict on their case. The President's right to pardon has become a hotly debated issue and one of the most controversial aspects of Vaclav Havel's presidency. Daniela Lazarova has the story:

Over the past year President Havel pardoned close to a hundred people, among them a twenty year old Romanian woman who gave birth in a Prague jail and could not have her baby with her, the aging mother of a former secret service officer who was charged with illegal possession of weapons which her son had hidden in the house and a Catholic priest charged with defamation of race, nation and belief for publicly criticizing the communist party.

Every case involving a presidential pardon inevitably attracts media and public interest - and on no occasion has the president received wholehearted support. Even in the case of the Catholic priest, which most people found absurd, the general opinion was that the president had undermined the credibility of the Czech judicial system by halting criminal proceedings before the case even began. Jiri Pehe, currently external advisor to the president believes that twelve years after the fall of communism the Czech judiciary is far from perfect and occasional intervention from a higher authority can prevent a lot of injustice.

"There may be cases when someone is "caught" in the criminal system before a verdict has been reached and it would be really unjust to drag that person through criminal proceedings which could take years if it is obvious that such a person should not be held in custody, tried or even sentenced. There may be such cases and unless the president is abusing his power or using it too often without good reason then it is good to have that that possibility in the hands of the head of state."

Doesn't that undermine the role of the judiciary?

"It may seem so, but especially in the post communist countries the judiciary system is just developing and it is far from perfect. There are cases of people being charged and held in custody for many months without criminal proceedings being launched against them. We know of such cases and it is quite important to have some higher authority who can step in and free such a person."

Not everyone agrees. Vaclav Zak, commentator with the political bi-monthly Listy thinks that the president should not be able to intervene before the court has reached a verdict.

"The president should certainly have the right to grant pardons. The question is whether he should also retain the right to halt criminal proceedings. This prerogative of the head of state was removed from the constitutions of all West European states after WWII. This matter is highly problematic and the judges I know are very discontent with this power of the president. Mr. Havel has been president for twelve years and there were many things he could do to improve the situation in the judiciary but by using his power to halt criminal proceedings he just shows that he does not believe in the Czech judiciary system."

Although there have been calls in Parliament for the President's right to halt criminal proceedings to be abolished, none of the proposed amendments ever made it through the Lower House. Instead, a new law, which went into effect on January 1st of this year, will radically shorten the period leading up to court hearings. Since the President frequently stops criminal proceedings on the grounds of ill health and excessively long periods in custody the implementation of this new law should help to resolve the problem.