© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: SMER-SSD party leader Robert Fico attends a press conference after the country’s early parliamentary elections, in Bratislava, Slovakia, October 1, 2023. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo
By Jan Lopatka and Gabriela Baczynska
(Reuters) -Slovakia’s new government led by political veteran Robert Fico agreed on Wednesday to rapidly scrap a special prosecutor’s office focused corruption, sparking opposition accusations of foul play and a call from the European Commission not to rush the changes.
President Zuzana Caputova has criticised the plan to close the office as a “step backwards”, and it will be closely watched in Brussels for any potential damage to the rule of law – an issue that has pitted neighbours Poland and Hungary against the European Union.
The special prosecution unit, the USP, has operated since 2004.
It has handled dozens of cases involving graft in police, judiciary and politics since 2021 while under the leadership of Daniel Lipsic, who served as interior minister in a government that took power from Fico between 2010 and 2012 – a connection that has irked Fico.
The cabinet proposed to shut the unit in a rapid legislative process that could be completed in weeks. Live cases and personnel would be transferred to other prosecutors’ offices.
Fico told a press conference that the USP had violated human rights in how it carried out proceedings and had to be disbanded.
“This evil in the form of Lipsic must end, and we are doing that forcefully and thoroughly,” Fico said.
Fico, who was forced to resign by mass protests in 2018 after the murder of a journalist investigating corruption, has long accused the USP of being politically biased against his SMER party and has spoken in favour of removing Lipsic. The USP also oversaw the murder investigation.
The European Commission asked Slovakia not to advance on the reform, which among other changes includes reducing sentences for some financial crimes.
“The wide-ranging scope of the intended amendments and the numerous areas of EU law concerned require a thorough and sound analysis,” the Commission told Reuters.
“This is why…we have asked the Slovak government not to advance on the intended amendments as yet, and especially not to resort to a fast-track procedure without proper and thorough consultation with stakeholders at national and European level.”
Among cases overseen by the USP is that of central bank governor and former SMER finance minister Peter Kazimir who has been on trial over alleged bribery, which he denies.
While in opposition, Fico himself had faced police charges, later dropped, that he used information from police and tax authorities to discredit political rivals. He said at the time it was political revenge.
Since winning the election on Sept. 30, he has repeatedly said he will act in a way acceptable to the European Commission to avoid threatening the country’s access to EU funds – a punishment that Hungary and Poland have faced for damaging democratic checks and balances.
The main opposition party, Progressive Slovakia said the government was acting to “achieve impunity and revenge”.
“This is blitzkrieg against the rule of law,” party chief Michal Simecka told a news conference shown live on television.
“We will stand up to this sternly – in parliament, in the public space, in the European Union,” Simecka said earlier in a statement.
Following the 2020 election victory of parties promising to weed out graft, a number of cases were opened against business leaders, judicial and police officers.
According to Slovak media, 40 people have been sentenced in the sweep and another 130 are being investigated or tried.