A closer look at available testimony casts further doubts on use of penitent witnesses in Slovakia

Certain things in life should absolutely be fast-tracked—a guilty verdict is not one of them, especially when the defendant has not been shown to be obviously guilty–as is the case for Peter Kažímír, the governor of Slovakia’s central bank who was convicted of bribery last month by Slovakia’s Special Criminal Court via penal order. Generally, penal orders are used for offenses for which there is a clear smoking gun and the client is obviously guilty as a way to lighten the judicial load. In this case, when the “smoking gun” is testimony from someone who has been recently convicted of corruption, the choice of a penal order seems rather dubious

The case against Kažímír is the second in recent months; a previous case brought against him was dismissed as the charges were rooted almost entirely on the testimony of notorious “universal witness” Frantisek Imrecze. In many respects, too, the case against Kažímír seems undoubtedly married to his role as a senior member of former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party where he served intermittently as the country’s finance minister or deputy prime minister between 2006 and 2019. Upon Fico’s party losing power in 2020, the Slovakian authorities have embarked on a full-throated anti-corruption binge, pursuing dozens of investigations into businessmen, former politicians, and high-level bureaucrats. As Kažímír’s case illustrates, the prosecutions have not proven to be legally airtight, often facing allegations of political motivations and resting on shaky evidence from so-called “universal witnesses” like Imrecze.

Telling the truth prosecutors want to hear?

The use of convicts or accused individuals as witnesses is not new, of course. In fact, it has been a tried–yet perhaps not quite true–prosecution method in Italy for the past 50 years, where it is referred to as the “pentiti” process. Introduced in the 1970s to combat the mafia, the pentiti process essentially incentivizes favorable plea bargains in exchange for testimonies of bigger crimes and more important people. A rather notorious example of the pitfalls of the pentiti process is Giovanni Melluso; after six years of hard time, the mafia member decided to testify in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Melluso falsely confessed to having delivered kilograms of cocaine to Italy’s most famous talk show host of the time, Enzo Tortora. Tortora was detained for 7 months and accused of being a member of the Camorra organised crime group himself before being cleared of all charges. He developed cancer and died one year after the case was solved; many say the emotional stress from the case proved to be too much. 

 In Slovakia as well, the use of penitent witnesses has sparked serious criticism and rule of law concerns. The witness factory which has been built allows a handful of key witnesses to testify in many anti-corruption cases leading to more than questionable testimony. A former senior NAKA officer went further and alleged evidence tampering and blackmail in conjunction with the pentiti process. 

Kažímír found himself on the hook after being named in the testimony of a subordinate, František Imrecze. Imrecze, a former head of the Financial Administration, a tax and customs bureau that is under the umbrella of the finance ministry. In his testimony, he stated that Kažímír gave him 48,000 EUR in 2017 in exchange for influence over evaluations of VAT refund requests by certain companies. 

Even aside from various inconsistencies, Imrecze’s testimony in Kažímír’s case and others has raised serious questions given the large number of major cases in which he is testifying. While the importance of the fight against graft means that any testimony–including from a penitent witness–cannot automatically be discounted, the importance of the struggle to stamp out corruption also means that cases must maintain a legal soundness that allows for convictions to be upheld. In cases founded primarily upon Imrecze’s testimony, that’s far from certain.

Testimony casts doubts 

A closer look at some of the testimony Imrecze has provided doesn’t help assuage doubts. In one recording, when Imrecze evoked the feeling of relief at being able to tell his supposed truth, he says, “... it’s going to be difficult… like hell… but a relief…” The interrogator responds by saying, “And like this… you have to remember that everyone plays for themselves yeah? It is purely on you yeah?” The former head of financial administration went on to say, “So, I’m going to shoot from the hip…I’m already testifying in things… I know that if I just got, like kept it up and generated more charges and that would have eventually ended up in an indictment…” 

The doubt raised by bits of testimony like this is reinforced by analysis by Slovak law scholar Eduard Burda, who has criticized the practices used by the Slovakian authorities to elicit plea bargains. Among the practices used to elicit plea bargains is pretrial detention, Burda said it could be used to “eliminate inconvenient witnesses” and that in many cases - not surprisingly so - detention can be used to pressure the accused to cooperate. Burda went on to underline the possible risk of the accused fabricating testimony to tell the authorities what they want to hear, hoping that it will translate into leniency in their personal cases.   

Like the infamous pentito Giovanni Melluso, Imrecze has shown himself willing to do what it takes to reduce the potential consequences for his criminal activities—some of which he has now been convicted of and some of which he is still facing charges for. Thus far, being a star witness has worked out in his favor–the more important of a witness he becomes, the easier it is for him to negotiate the most advantageous plea bargain possible. Despite facing serious charges in any number of cases, Imrecze thus far has gotten off relatively well. With rampant reports of mistreatment of inmates in Slovak prisons, it’s understandable that he is doing everything in his power to avoid the place by exaggerating or even potentially fabricating testimony. However, prosecutors and judges should be wary of relying so heavily on evidence clearly colored by personal motivation as they may find themselves with cases that are legally dubious at best, like the recent hasty conviction of Peter Kažímír.