A Czech first: two judges charged with corruption

Two judges from the Litoměřice District Court charged with accepting bribes and abuse of powers may face 8-year prison sentences

István Léko | 31.10.2011

For the first time in modern Czech history judges have been arrested on suspicion of corrupt practices. “On Thursday, October 27, the department for serious economic crimes of the anti-corruption and financial crimes unit launched criminal proceedings against two judges from the Litoměřice District Court and an administrative official from the same court,” deputy chief state prosecutor for the Ústí nad Labem region, Lenka Bradáčová, told Czech Position.

On Sunday evening, Czech Television (ČT) reported that the judges under investigation are Josef Knotek and Ladislav Jelínek. According to Czech Position’s information, the administrative official under suspicion is a court notary.

“Of course this is an important case. It serves as proof that [cases of] possible illegal conduct by judges are investigated and not brushed under the carpet,” Minister of Justice, Jiří Pospíšil (Civic Democrats, ODS) told Czech Position, adding that the fact that hitherto no information was leaked to the press about the investigation demonstrates the classified status of the whole process.

“One of the judges was remanded in custody under a court order on October 30, in order to prevent possible attempts to influence witnesses who have yet to be questioned, or continuation of criminal activities. The [criminal] acts for which the investigation was launched are connected with the ruling and sentencing activities of the two judges in the criminal proceedings department,” Bradáčová explained.

According to Czech Position’s information, the judge held in custody is Josef Knotek, while the second, Ladislav Jelínek, has been released pending the outcome of the investigation.

Not a first for Knotek

Josef Knotek previously came to the public’s attention when he was charged under suspicion of covering up a driving accident caused by a judge from the Supreme Court and later, a road accident involving Prague High Court judge, Zdeňek Sovák. The case was heard by the Mělnik district court four years ago.

Sovák caused a crash in 2003 in the town of Lovosice when drunk (he had 0.246% blood alcohol content; the Czech Republic allows zero alcohol tolerance, whereas in the US and UK, which have among the highest tolerance levels, the limit is 0.08%), yet the only punishment he received was a fine of Kč 1,500. According to the police’s findings, Sovák received such lenient treatment thanks to the intervention of Knotek and Vladislav Větrovec, who is considered as the boss of the so-called bankruptcy mafia.

Police uncovered the Sovák drink driving let-off when conducting call surveillance in connection with another case, but the court did not accept the recorded evidence presented and exonerated Knotek. Judge Knotek was stripped of his robe for about a year as a result of the case, but when he resumed his duties, he demanded Kč 500,000 in compensation from the state.

Professional work

“The criminal proceedings were launched following lengthy preparations based on high-quality and professional cooperation with the According to Czech Position’s information, President Václav Klaus gave his consent for the arrest of the two suspected judges over a month ago relevant police organ,” prosecutor Bradáčová said, adding that the fact one of the judges has been taken into custody is an indication of a thorough and professional job done by the anti-corruption police.

In almost any country the arrest of a judge is a serious and exceptional event. If the case concerns illegal acts committed when fulfilling judicial duties, or in connection with their judicial position, the arrest must be cleared by the Czech president. According to Czech Position’s information, President Václav Klaus gave his consent for the arrest of the two suspected judges, Knotek and Jelínek, over a month ago.

The organ that initiates criminal proceedings against a judge is also obliged to notify the Ministry of Justice and the chairman of the relevant court. Since the emergence of the Czech Republic there has only been one arrest of a judge: In 2003, a bankruptcy judge from Ústí nad Labem, Jiří Berka, was arrested and subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison for participation in an organized criminal group; he was found to have rigged bankruptcy proceedings.

In its recently published annual report for 2010, BIS, the state counterespionage and intelligence agency, points to corruption on various levels of the judiciary. Minister of Justice Pospíšil said he considered the information from BIS to be grave and at the same time requested BIS director Jiří Lang, if he could provide information to the ministry to enable it to take appropriate measures.

President of the Union of Judges of the Czech Republic, Jaromír Jirsa, says he has heard talk about the corruption of judges for 15 years, but with the exception of former judge Berka and his group and also one other judge, it’s nothing more than rumors.

“I hope BIS is aware of the gravity of its allegations, and I trust that the next step will be to vindicate those allegations,” Jirsa said. 

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