I was invited to a dinner with several classical liberals and conservatives in Brussels. We talked a great deal about politics in various countries and because it was my first appearance at this club, other invitees had quite a few questions regarding the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia.
At one point, one of the attendees remarked something about President Klaus pardoning his friends. I quickly rejected this outlandish claim and set about explaining what President Klaus’s amnesty was actually about. In the course of my explaining, I realized that there is probably no sensible explanation of President Klaus’s amnesty in English. This is my attempt at clarifying for non-Czech audiences.
It was January 1, 2013. It is a long-standing tradition that the Czech (Czechoslovak) president delivers a New Year’s Address. It was also the 20th anniversary of the Czech Republic. With two months remaining in his term (and being prohibited by the term limits from re-election), President Klaus decided that he would declare an amnesty at the end of his last New Year’s Address. The amnesty had three parts:
(i) Amnesty of petty crimes with jail sentences of no more than 1 year.
(ii) Amnesty for inmates older than 69 years with jail sentences of no more than 3 years.
(iii) Abolition of prosecutions that have been going on for more than 8 years and where the defendant faces charges of less than 10 years in prison.
We could debate the first two points and it could lead to some criminal sentencing reform but these two were virtually neglected. The only debate – or I daresay outrage – in the Czech and international media was concerning the third part. And here I absolutely agree with President Klaus.
The general principle
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” (A similar provision is to be found in the Czech Constitution.)
Surely, we must agree that it would be against the rule of law if citizens were being prosecuted for decades without the courts ever declaring them guilty or not guilty. Therefore, it follows that there must be a threshold (and must not be arbitrary, it can vary from case to case) where enough is enough. Just like it is against the rule of law to try a person twice for the same offense.
There are (were) cases in the Czech Republic that take 12 years, sometimes even longer. In President Klaus’s eyes (and in mine), this is unacceptable. Remember, these people have not been convicted of anything ? and are therefore innocent – in their entire lives and are being dragged through the court system for a decade.
On the general principle, President Klaus was correct to issue such an abolition, the Founding Fathers of the USA would agree. In some jurisdictions around the world, there are statutory limitations of how long a prosecution can take.
But did Klaus pardon his friends?
According to the media, there were about four hundred cases that were stopped because of this part of the amnesty. The media tried desperately to find any big fish. These are the most famous defendants cleared by the amnesty:
Managers of the failed Union Banka. The bank bankrupted in 2003 and the trial began in 2011, there is no connection to Klaus whatsoever.
Agro-manager František Chvalovský, arrested in 2001 (!) and accused of abuse and fraud of 1.5 billion CZK. No connection to Klaus whatsoever.
Judge Jiří Berka, charged with a conspiracy to embezzle 250 million CZK through false bankrutpcies. Although originally reported otherwise, he was not pardoned by the amnesty as he faces charges of more than 10 years in prison.
Managers of the failed real estate agency H-Systém. One of the managers has been in prison for years now, the others were still being dragged through the court system since 1999. They had already been convicted but the case was remanded because the higher court thought the sentences were too low. This is an exact example of the defendants’ right to a speedy trial in a due process of law being trampled on. This case is very politicized as a former vice-speaker of the Czech House of Representatives is the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case. But again, no connection to Klaus.
The only connection to President Klaus is his chief of staff’s daughter Magdaléna Weiglová who was serving a suspended jail sentence and does fall into another paragraph of the amnesty, not this controversial one.
It is also noteworthy that all of these cases were first prosecuted when Mr. Klaus had no executive role. He left the government in 1998 and was elected president in 2003.
The connection that the media made is as follows: Some people got rich in the 1990s thanks to the privatization and deregulation orchestrated by governments where Mr. Klaus was either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of the Treasury. These people then went on to have businesses and perhaps were guilty of some wrongdoing but the state was utterly unable to convict them. President Klaus’s abolition is supposed to be a thankyou to these people who had no connection to him and of whose cases he was most probably not even aware of as they sometimes took more than a decade. How this is President Klaus pardoning his friends, is totally beyond me.
President Klaus knew the amnesty would be unpopular and man, it was unpopular. It even inspired a ludicrous impeachment attempt against him. He lost a big share of his political capital by the amnesty.
He was in a situation where he knew that his career as an elected politician was over. After 25 years in various positions in the legislature and in the executive, this was the one last thing he could do. As I have shown in the first part of this article, I think it was the right thing to do from a classical liberal perspective with regards to the rule of law.
Therefore, I conclude that President Klaus used his political capital for a good deed.