The inside story on Slovakian prosecutors’ remarkable assembly line of witnesses
The OLaNO-led coalition which has governed Slovakia since March 2020 has always suffered from a lack of clear vision and common policy priorities. This lacuna repeatedly brought the four-party alliance to the verge of collapse, even before the latest flashpoint saw coalition member SaS pull out of government, leaving Prime Minister Eduard Heger overseeing a minority administration. With the fight against corruption a key campaign for the ruling parties and one of their only points of political common ground, it’s not surprising that the coalition has made anti-graft efforts a centrepiece of its tenure in government, with both anti-corruption prosecutions and convictions on the rise since the current administration took power in Bratislava.
More unusual and troubling, however, are the methods which Slovak prosecutors, under the oversight of Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipšic, have deployed to drum up evidence against a wide range of policymakers, civil servants and businesspeople linked to opposition parties. In particular, Slovak and international legal experts have raised concerns over Slovak prosecutors’ reliance on evidence from so-called “penitents”, indicted parties who’ve been offered lesser sentences or other perks if they provide information which could be used to build a case against other individuals which prosecutors want to charge.
While many judiciaries around the world consider evidence from people who’ve flipped to offer testimony in exchange for leniency, particular care is usually taken to corroborate their assertions, given that these flipped witnesses are naturally incentivised to please prosecutors, including by stretching the truth or outright inventing evidence. The European Court of Human Rights has underlined that this type of testimony should be treated with special caution, yet some cases brought by Slovakian prosecutors are based almost entirely on this kind of contentious proof—which Slovakian law enforcement agencies have puzzlingly referred to as “indisputable evidence”—as penitent witnesses are turned out in a streamlined operation that has been compared to a “factory”.
Behind the scenes of the witness factory
How these witnesses are produced has an important bearing on how trustworthy their testimony is. Insiders within the Slovakian justice system, alarmed at the widespread strategy of flipping witnesses, have emphasized that, in a democratic society, the end goal of stamping out corruption must not justify the means, and have outlined the procedure through which pressure is brought to bear on suspects to testify against other defendants.
Allegedly, defendants generally agree to confess and cooperate with prosecutors only after they are taken into custody, after previously insisting upon their innocence. This sudden change of heart can be chalked up to the way in which accused individuals are “prepared” by prosecutors once in custody, namely by being subjected to various forms of physical and psychological pressure.
Detention itself is a key ingredient of this strategy of preparation: “the longer the personal freedom of the accused is restricted, the greater the probability that the use of this method will be successful”, one judge in Bratislava explained. Individuals in custody are isolated as much as possible from family members and the outside world, while investigators continually impress upon them that the weight of evidence against them is overwhelming, until the accused are convinced that they have no chance of proving their innocence. Investigators then dangle a series of potential rewards in front of the accused persons, encouraging them to confess not only to what they themselves have been accused of, but indicating other people against which prosecutors would like them to testify.
Prolific penitents, but inconsistent information
This controversial system has produced a number of high-profile witnesses whose testimony has become central to anti-corruption prosecutions in Slovakia, including former Financial Administration criminal unit director Ľudovít Makó, former Financial Administration chief František Imrecze, businessman Michal Suchoba, former police officer Bernard Slobodník and František Böhm, formerly of the Slovak Information Service intelligence agency.
Ľudovít Makó has become Slovakia’s most famous penitent—dramatically arrested in September 2020 in a helicopter-backed raid, Makó seemed to be in dire legal jeopardy. Facing serious accusations including violent criminal activity, connections to mafia groups and extortion, Makó’s request for bail was denied and he faced up to 20 years in prison—until he began cooperating earnestly with investigators, offering up testimony with “the potential of an atomic bomb” against figures linked to opposition party SMER. Makó’s legal and financial situation has improved since he began his enthusiastic cooperation with the police, and at last count he is testifying in an extraordinary 86 different cases. The quality and accuracy of Makó’s evidence is the subject of intense debate—earlier this year, he was accused of perjury, of giving contradictory evidence against former secret service director Vladimír Pčolinsky and of meeting secretly with another penitent witness to coordinate their testimony.
Several of the individuals against which Makó brought evidence have themselves turned to cooperation with investigators in exchange for leniency, such as František Imrecze and Michal Suchoba. After Makó’s testimony ensnared them in a bribery ring, both Imrecze and Suchoba were facing substantial potential prison sentences, as well as the prospect of further charges after anti-corruption NGOs uncovered evidence that they had been involved in a large-scale money laundering operation. After initially denying the accusations, both Imrecze and Suchoba began informing on a pyramid of individuals leading up to the leaders of Slovakia’s main opposition parties, SMER and HLAS. As with Makó’s testimony, potential contradictions have cropped up in Imrecze and Suchoba’s statements. As one investigative journalist pointed out, for example, the two witnesses initially claimed to have delivered a bribe in 2014 in an office in Bratislava’s Carlton Hotel which did not in fact exist until 2016; moreover, Suchoba claimed that the office where the alleged bribe took place was the seat of an investment company, while Imrecze described it as Monaco’s consulate in Bratislava.
While Imrecze has adamantly insisted that he was not coerced into cooperating with the authorities and that he was not mistreated while in custody, the same cannot be said for some of the other flipped witnesses. In a leaked recording, former police officer Bernard Slobodník was quite open about the pressure he faced to become a penitent. Slobodník described meeting with Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipšic, who “arranged everything” for his testimony, and explained that his decision to testify was rooted in his fear that if he didn’t go along with prosecutors “150 percent”, he knew that “they would throw everything at [him]”, including a 15-year prison sentence. Desperate to avoid such a long stint behind bars, Slobodník coordinated with police officers on the recording to determine whom he should implicate in his testimony.
The duress which many indicted Slovaks are under to turn government witness has, unfortunately, not merely resulted in questionable evidence, but has had tragic consequences. The fifth prominent penitent, František Böhm, became a key witness in a number of high-profile corruption cases after he was accused of belonging to criminal groups. Notably, Böhm implicated former police president Milan Lučanský, accusing him of collecting €30,000 a month for covering up criminal activity. While Böhm was released in exchange for his testimony against Lučanský, Lučanský was progressively isolated from his family in custody and died in his prison cell on December 30, 2020, a death which was officially ruled a suicide after a special investigation. Just weeks later, František Böhm also died by suicide; according to his son, Böhm had been racked with remorse after Lučanský’s death.
Despite these tragic events, prosecutors are pressing ahead with the witness factory, with penitent witnesses routinely called upon to testify against the upper echelons of Slovakian business and politics.