Treason charge against former Czech president dropped

By bne IntelliNews March 28, 2013

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The Czech Constitutional Court threw out the treason charges brought against the now-former president Vaclav Klaus on March 27. While the court dismissed the charges on a technicality, the decision leaves Klaus an open road to attempt to reassert influence over Czech right-wing politics.

Klaus, who finished his second and final term in Prague Castle on March 7, was impeached by the upper house of parliament on March 4. Dominated by the left-leaning Social Democrats (CSSD), the Senate accused him of violating the constitution by granting a New Year's amnesty that freed thousands of prisoners and halted dozens of fraud prosecutions, as well as of refusing to sign European treaties.

A charge of "high treason" is the only one that can be brought against a Czech president. However, the court rejected the case on the procedural grounds that Klaus cannot be tried because he is no longer in office. "The Constitutional Court did not find room to continue the proceedings after the end of the president's term, and therefore halted the case," the court said in a statement on its website.

The biggest direct penalty a president can face from the charge is losing office. Klaus was threatened only by a milder punishment of losing a pension and not being able to run for the presidency again, reports Reuters. However, the driving point for the CSSD was to try to curtail Klaus' continued influence in Czech politics after he left the castle, and it had seized on the amnesty as a means to do so.

Public anger

Klaus' amnesty, which the Civil Democrats (ODS) - the right-leaning leading party of the current coalition that was co-founded by Klaus in 1991 - distanced itself from, has caused outrage in the country. In particular, the halting of the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases involving millions of dollars in asset-stripping, bribes and fraud under the terms of the president's action has helped re-spark already palpable fury against the elites. Klaus, who has been widely criticized for the growth of corruption throughout his two decades or so in the PM and president's chairs, has rejected accusations he deliberately formulated the amnesty to let such criminals go free.

This latest failure to break the old political elite that has dominated Czech politics since the fall of communism only serves to illustrate just how entrenched they are. The victory of Milos Zeman in January's elections to replace Klaus as president brought that issue very much to the fore. Zeman led the CSSD in the lower house against Klaus through the 1990s, and even essentially shared the PM's chair with him when officially in office between 1998 and 2002.

These days, he is clearly closer still to the departing president. Indeed, Klaus enthusiastically supported his old "foe's" campaign to take over in Prague castle, and like his predecessor, Zeman has promised that he intends to be heavily involved in government business.

Meanwhile, Klaus has made no secret of the fact that he plans to retain his seat of power over the Czech right once he leaves the presidency. He has repeatedly said he cannot rule out a return to the ODS, nor to run for a seat in the European Parliament.

Given that Klaus' attempt late last year to unseat Prime Minister Petr Necas from the ODS leadership came very close to collapsing the governing coalition, many current leaders of the Czech right are unlikely to welcome the court's decision, despite public declarations of support for the ex-president.

Across the lower house, the CSSD will also be disappointed. The party appears a shoe-in to form the next government following the next elections in 2014. An impeachment would clearly have hit the right hard, while the current leadership of the CSSD has more to fear from the new president following a bitter falling out in 2007. Hitting his now friend and supporter could also have curtailed Zeman's ability to meddle in party and parliamentary politics.

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