Does letting high-profile criminal informants continue to lead luxury lifestyles perpetuate crime?

Luxury villas, sportscars and overseas holidays: a leading Slovak politician has criticised the lack of consequences and seeming freedom enjoyed by informants in criminal cases. The accusations bring the double-standard of the Slovakian government’s anti-corruption crackdown into sharp relief.

In a recent video post, Matúš Šutaj Eštok, general manager of the Hlas-SD party, explained that high profile informants such as Michal Suchoba and Frantisek Imrecze “continue to cheerfully enjoy their freedom and stolen millions.

”Both Suchoba, a prominent businessman, and Imrecze, the former head of Slovakia’s tax authority, have plead guilty in corruption-related cases. Imrecze was convicted of corruption earlier this year, yet received only a financial penalty. Both have benefitted from Slovakia’s system of “penitent witnesses” in which informants in criminal cases are granted reduced sentences in return for their cooperation.

Imrecze, in particular, has acted as a witness in a large number of cases as part of the Slovakian government’s anti-corruption crackdown. Slovakian prosecutors have formerly been criticised for building a “witness factory”, with a handful of key witnesses testifying in a large number of anti-corruption cases. Prosecutors have also been accused of coercing witness testimony through arrest and intimidation, with a former senior official of the Slovakian national crime agency (NAKA) alleging evidence tampering and blackmail.

Despite the criminal charges, these penitent witnesses “are obviously not idle and spend their [allegedly stolen] millions – money which the state has not asked to be returned,” said Eštok. “Suchoba is buying Ferraris in Prague and spends his free time in the United Arab Emirates while Imrecze, via his girlfriend, has bought a luxury villa for 1.3m euros in cash”.

Imrecze has been “doubly-rewarded” for his cooperation, Eštok said. “First, his cooperation only resulted in a symbolic punishment for his corruption. And, second, he will apparently be able to keep the money he is convicted of stealing”.

The use of flipped informants in criminal case is controversial, in many ways. Although it has led to major successes in some cases, such as mafia convictions in the United States and Italy, legal scholars caution that such informants should not be exclusively relied upon. Informers are equally capable of committing perjury, obstructing justice, manufacturing false evidence and recruiting other witness to corroborate false stories.

Slovakia's reliance on penitent informants as part of the country’s anti-corruption drive has been particularly criticised, especially due to the widespread use of pre-trial detention to elicit confessions. Judges in Slovakia have called for an end to the practice to its potential for abuse. According to judge Petr Šamek, of the regional court in Bratislava, “it often seems that law enforcement does not go where the evidence takes them, but the evidence goes where it is sent by law enforcement.” 

“It is not uncommon for us to see that, as a rule, the media, but sometimes also the law enforcement authorities solemnly report at press conferences that some of the accused confessed to the criminal offense named in the indictment in a media-related criminal case. Such a confession is then presented as clear evidence of the merits of the allegations made,” he said.According to Šamek “the penitent’s testimony should be the beginning of the evidence, not the end.”

Slovak prosecutors do not appear to have heard these calls, allowing criminal informants like Suchoba and Imrecze to testify in an extraordinary number of cases—and, as long as they are allowed to keep their riches which stem at least in part from ill-gotten gains, they have an obvious incentive to continue pleasing prosecutors by agreeing to testify in more, whether or not the evidence they provide is accurate and reliable.

The cases of Suchoba and Imrecze could have serious repercussions for the Slovak legal system. Even if we accept the idea of penitent witnesses getting reduced sentences in exchange for testimony was accepted, should there not be heavier financial penalties to dissuade others from making a fortune through criminal activities and then simply informing on their associates to avoid serious repercussions?

The lavish lifestyles enjoyed by these high-profile informants send the wrong message and the cost to the judicial system and the rule of law could be very high.