The parliamentary immunity and mandate committee on May 22 voted unanimously to recommend MP David Rath be stripped of his immunity and prosecuted; the lower house is set to vote on the measure at its next session in early June
As recently as the morning of May 14, people at the headquarters of the Social Democrats (ČSSD) could be forgiven for thinking that the doors were opening to the Straka Academy, the seat of the Czech parliament, based on the party’s strong showing in opinion polls (30 percent) at the expense of the center-right coalition.
“The only thing that could harm the ČSSD would be disputes around the nomination of our candidate for president. This is what all of our political opponents are hoping for. They are waiting for us to make a mistake. It’s their only hope,” party leader Bohuslav Sobotka said in an interview with the left-leaning daily Právo that day.
But before the comrades could begin squabbling over Jiří Dienstbier Jr., their candidate in the direct presidential elections who is a somewhat radical choice for the conservative tastes of the party, the ČSSD was dealt a severe blow: the arrest that evening of MP David Rath, the central Bohemian governor, on corruption charges. The chairperson of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies), Miroslava Němcová (Civic Democrats, ODS), had given her consent to the police for Rath to be held on remand.
Shocked ČSSD supporters wanted to know whether Němcová would have reached the same decision if the case had involved not the tough-talking critic of rightwing governments like Rath but rather an MP from one of the governing parties. Let’s assume the answer is yes, even though there is no proof for such an assumption, because no rightwing MP or senator has been caught “red-handed” while committing a serious criminal offense or in the immediate aftermath (Rath had millions in cash, an alleged bribe, on him at the time).
The former criminal investigator and now lawyer Václav Láska made the following observation on Czech public radio on May 16: although the police had had Rath and seven others in their sights for six months, this time round there had had been no leaks of their findings. Anyone who reads regular Czech newspaper reports regarding telephone tapping, information gleaned from stakeouts, and other such material might well ask themselves whether this was mere coincidence.
And they will ask themselves another question: why does all sorts of information get leaked to the Czech public from other cases and the arms of Lady Justice fail to reach the guilty parties? Why didn’t this happen this time? And why was the police investigation so perfectly executed?
The first reaction of the ČSSD to Rath’s arrest was hardly free of suspicion! On the morning of May 15, Sobotka, and his first vice-chairman, Michal Hašek, issued a statement in which they requested Police president Petr Lessy and Interior Minister Jan Kubice, to explain publicly and in detail the approach taken by the police in this case as quickly as possible: “We firmly believe that the police have everything backed up and documented and that there is no chance of this being the start of the pre-election campaign in Central Bohemia. However, if an offense has genuinely been committed, the ČSSD abides by the principle of all being equal under the law, and this is true of all its members without exception.”
Sobotka and Hašek are lawyers by training, and it must have been clear to them that in this phase of criminal proceedings neither the police president nor the district attorney could explain anything “publicly, in detail and as quickly as possible,” and that Kubice was in the same position since he could not be involved in the investigation. The truth is that the ČSSD is unlikely to believe the interior minister. In spring 2006, four days prior to the “big” elections, as head of the anti-corruption division Kubice had informed members of the Defense and Security Committee of the links between the criminal underworld and the political sphere, including certain representatives of the ČSSD.
Through the “solicitude” of two members of the committee the “Kubice report” found its way into the hands of the media, and the leader of the ČSSD at that time, Jiří Paroubek, was absolutely convinced that it had damaged his party in the elections and was responsible for the party coming a close second to the ODS. The “Kubice syndrome” is still fresh in the minds of ČSSD members, and so it is no surprise that not only Sobotka and Hašek, but many others in the party who were shocked by Rath’s arrest suspected that this was a fabricated attempt to discredit the Social Democrats shortly before three important elections.
However, when news of Rath’s arrest became public, the spokesman of the anti-corruption police, Jaroslav Ibehej, and the Ústí nad labem district attorney, Lenka Bradáčová, who is supervising the case, provided some basic information and took the wind out of the sails of Lidový dům, the Social Democrat’s headquarters. That afternoon the ČSSD vice chairman Jiří Dienstbier, Jr. gave a statement saying that Rath should relinquish all his party and public functions if the information regarding his alleged involvement in bribery were to be confirmed. In the end this is what Rath did.
Sobotka added his own opinion, to the effect that if such serious accusations had been levelled against Rath, “He cannot figure on our list of candidates for the next elections. It will now be for the leadership of the Central Bohemian social democrats to find a new leader for the regional elections.” Later, Sobotka said that it would be appropriate for Rath to resign from the position of governor and from the Central Bohemian local authorities. This happened on May 16, when the police took Rath, now remanded in custody so as to prevent collusion, to the headquarters of the regional authorities for a brief meeting. It was the day of Rath’s resignations.