Czech president to review judge's appointment after hearing of his communist-era verdicts

Czech president to review judge's appointment after hearing of his communist-era verdicts
Robert Fremr has had a distinguished judicial career in the democratic era. He was a Supreme Court judge and also a former judge on the International Criminal Court. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera in Prague August 10, 2023

Czech President Petr Pavel will review his nomination of Robert Fremr after revelations of the judge's verdicts in the communist era.

Earlier this week Pavel put Fremr’s appointment on hold after information emerged that the judge’s participation in political trials in the 1980s was more extensive than previously disclosed.

“I have requested access to relevant information and sources in this matter,” Pavel’s X/Twitter account posted in a thread. “I have no intention to re-examine any decision, but I do not want to ignore […] hitherto unexamined information.”

Progressive senator and former presidential candidate Marek Hilser posted on  his X/Twitter account on August 6 that “Fremr did not speak the truth in front of the Senate when he said that he did not sentence anyone for political reasons during the totalitarian era.” The Senate hearing is part of the procedure leading to the appointing of Constitutional Court judges.

Hilser posted that in the years 1983-85, Fremr sentenced more than 100 persons for emigrating from the then Czechoslovakia. These sentences carried a confiscation of the property of the emigres and meant that their families in Czechoslovakia faced social and political repercussions.

Several Senators also reviewed a 1988 case in which Fremer passed sentence on three youths who were charged with 100 offences, including the vandalising of  the graves of Soviet and Bulgarian soldiers at Prague's Olsany cemetery, and were given 5-8 year prison terms.  Investigative server HlidaciPes reported that witnesses in the case were forced into their testimonies by the Czechoslovak secret service StB, something which Fremr says he was unaware of.

As Czech Radio noted, the whole affair is an embarrassment to Pavel’s office, who reiterated in his social media post that “building a strong and independent Constitutional Court is one of my most important tasks.”

Appointing Constitutional Court judges is, together with appointing the Czech central bank (CNB) board, one of the most influential aspects of the otherwise largely ceremonial role of the Czech President. Pavel’s office selected the nominees and presented them to the Senate.

Fremr has had a distinguished judicial career in the democratic era. He was a Supreme Court judge and also a former judge on the International Criminal Court.

The affair has refreshed ongoing public debates about the communist past. Pavel himself is a former Communist Party member and continues to be criticised for joining elite units of the Czechoslovak military in the 1980s.

Jiri Priban of Cardiff University told Czech Radio that “the dilemma we face here is more about the present than the past. Whether the judge in question told the Senate the truth or whether he lied about his past”. He added that “over 300,000 people fled communist Czechoslovakia and all of them were prosecuted. That would effectively eliminate all the judges who served before 1989.”

Hilser told Czech Radio that during his Senate hearing Fremr “led us to believe that he had only been involved in one communist-rigged trial and been unaware of the fact that it was rigged” .    

Other critics point out that Fremr must have been well acquainted with the nature of the justice system in the 1980s. Jan Culik of the University of Glasgow told bne Intellinews that he understands it is impossible to review everyone given the large scope of society’s participation in the daily mechanisms of the normalisation era communist regime of the 1970s and 1980s. “But why should the judges from that era hold Constitutional Court seats?” he asked rhetorically.

Earlier Josef Baxa was appointed as the new head of the Constitutional Court, replacing Pavel Rychetsky. Baxa told reporters he does not remember having tried emigres though he did not rule it out.