Social Democrats facing dilemma over proposed Penal Code

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Three months ahead of parliamentary elections, the ruling Social Democrats are facing a serious dilemma over a proposed new Penal Code. The much needed bill, which among other things reduces sentences for euthanasia, bans the cloning of humans, and introduces higher sentences for murder, lacks an important article against large-scale fraud. The Senate has rejected the bill and deputies are now in two minds over whether or not to support it in its current form. Dita Asiedu reports:

When the 106 members of parliament in the 200 seat Chamber of Deputies voted in favour of the proposed Penal Code, many of them were unaware that it lacked an article on the "abuse of information in business relations". Without it, the new Penal Code would make it possible for entrepreneurs to transfer money and property between the firms that they head. In simple terms, it would fail to prevent some forms of large-scale fraud.

The article, which has been part of the Czech Penal Code for fifteen years, was removed by Civic Democrat Deputy Marek Benda. He argues it is easily abused and has often been misapplied to disadvantage and pressure businessmen. The proposed Penal Code, he says, also has many other articles under which crimes of fraud can be punished. Mr Benda is backed by the author of the Penal Code, Supreme Court judge Pavel Samal, who describes the debate around the bill as 'much ado about nothing'. But other experts in the field beg to differ. Lawyer Hana Marvanova, a former Freedom Union member of parliament was one of the first to point to the problem:

"No, it is not true that the removed article won't be missed. Some charges can be brought under other articles but the article in question also prosecutes offenders who commit very specific crimes. So, under the new Penal Code, those offenders would simply not be brought to justice."

If the new Penal Code in its current form were to come into effect, it would be problematic to investigate and clamp down on some forms of economic crime. Those who are currently serving sentences for fraud could also be set free. Media reports speculate Roman Zubik, the former owner of an ice-hockey club in the north Moravian town of Vsetin, who was recently sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for fraud, could be one of them. Fugitive businessman Radovan Krejcir is also facing charges under the missing article.

To avoid embarrassment, some Social Democrats are now trying to prevent the bill from approval. Backed by several other ministers, Finance Minister and acting party leader Bohuslav Sobotka has been trying to convince deputies to vote against it. But Social Democrat Deputy Jan Kavan sees no reason why they should:

"I don't know of anyone who was convicted only on that article and would therefore be released. So, I personally think that if we vote for the Penal Code then nothing terrible would happen. I am afraid that under this misleading pressure from the Czech media many MPs would vote against the whole Penal Code because there is no other alternative - it's either the whole thing or nothing at this stage - then nothing can be done during this term. It will be up to the new parliament after the elections to start again and that is a very long-term process."

Some of the articles in the new Penal Code are much-needed. Euthanasia, for example, would no longer be considered murder, the cloning of humans would be banned, sentences for murder would be raised, house arrests would be introduced, a differentiation between hard and soft drugs would be made, and the age of criminal responsibility would be reduced to 14 years.

Around three dozen protesters gathered outside parliament on Tuesday to criticise the removal of the article. Whether or not the ruling Social Democrats will vote against the bill has yet to be decided by Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek. He intends to discuss the issue with his ministers but he already revealed that party lawyers strongly advise an amendment to the bill.