After the churches, another Czech restitution case explodes into life

By bne IntelliNews November 30, 2012

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

Just as the Czech Republic managed to close one big outstanding property restitution case with the churches on November 23, the other large remaining restitution case burst into life.

In what was a shock verdict even for the family of Elisabeth Pezold, the Czech Constitutional Court on November 22 upheld her claim challenging her adoptive brother's, current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, right to be the heir of the Hluboka (and much grander) branch of the Schwarzenberg family. "As noted by the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court previously ignored Mrs Pezold's arguments regarding her position as heiress to Adolph Schwarzenberg," her representatives said in a statement following the verdict. "[T]he Constitutional Court has confirmed what she has been saying all along: that, until now, she has not been granted a fair process."

Elisabeth Pezold is the granddaughter of the late Prince Adolph Schwarzenberg, whose vast property holdings that included the chateaux of Hluboka and Cesky Krumlov were confiscated first by the Nazis in 1940 and then the Communists in 1948.

Pezold accuses Karel, who was from a lesser line of the Schwarzenberg clan and adopted by her father Heinrich because he had no male heir, of failing to meet the wishes of their father stipulated in his will: that his successor should make every effort to get the property back as soon as possible - something he has singularly failed to try to do. As such, he has forfeited his right to be the heir, claims Pezold, because Heinrich Schwarzenberg specifically chose his daughter Elisabeth as the subsidiary heir to the Czech estates in the case that Karel was not part of the entitled circle to reclaim the estate.

Why Karel, who did his utmost to get the property from his side of the family restituted, did not meet the deadline to restitute the property from the other side of the family and has since tried to block Elizabeth from attempting to do so, remains a matter of some conjecture.

His own stated position is somewhat confused in that the reasons he gives seem to keep changing. According to the Pezolds, Karel told Elisabeth that he did not want to apply for restitution during his service for the late president Vaclav Havel until June 30, 1992, but that he would do so afterwards. To date, he has not done so - at first he told her this was due to "conscientious objections"; later he argued that he could not do so because his adoption by her father was not valid under Czech law and so he was not an entitled person under the restitution laws.

For his part, Karel, whose representatives did not return calls to comment on the verdict, was quoted by the local press as saying in May that he refused to sue the state when asked to by Pezold in 1989, considering such a move "an utterly counterproductive thing to do".

Counterproductive certainly to his political ambitions that currently include a shot at the presidency, retort his critics.

Public opinion

Restitution remains a controversial subject in the Czech Republic. The government, after a bruising battle in both the political and public arenas, has just managed to pass into law a church restitution bill, which will give back property and provide compensation worth a total of CZK134bn (about €5.4bn) to the country's churches, over half of that to the Roman Catholic Church. The amount is made up of CZK75bn worth of buildings, land and forests that can proven to have been owned in February 1948 before the Communist coup, and CZK59bn in financial compensation over the next 30 years for property that can't be returned.

The restitution of Prince Adolph Schwarzenberg's property, of which Karel seems so little interested in, is made up of some of the finest properties in the land - according to the Pezold website, when the Gestapo took over his properties Adolph Schwarzenberg owned about 55 000 hecatres (ha) of forests, farm land and ponds, various business enterprises, archives and art collections, the castles at Hluboka and Cesky Krumlov, as well as the Zlata Koruna monastery and two palaces in the Prague quarter of Hradcany. To have all of this handed back now to a former landowner would not go down well with a Czech public living under harsh austerity measures amid a recession.

So where does Pezold's unexpected victory in the Constitutional Court leave the case? Back at square one, according to Adam Pezold, Elisabeth's son, which in this case is the district court in Ceske Budejovice, south Bohemia. "The whole process begins again, with one important difference: my mother is now to be treated as heiress unless a court can prove otherwise," Adam says, referring to the Constitutional judge-rapporteur Ivana Janu's judgment that the court should either make Pezold another participant in the proceedings or clearly explain why she should not participate in it.

"The verdict confirms our impression all along, that we have not received a fair trial over all these years, as our evidence has not been examined," says Adam. "After 10 years, I was slightly surprised at the verdict - we've become accustomed to the fact that justice is not to be granted to us."

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