Richard Donoghue raises pressure on Slovakia’s anti-corruption fight

At a press conference on Monday, high-profile American attorney Richard Donoghue—recently appointed to the legal team defending Slovakian businessman Miroslav Vyboh from bribery allegations—took aim at the system of “penitents”, or flipped witnesses, which has come to characterize the anti-corruption campaign led by the current Slovakian administration.

The American lawyer, who was the former Deputy Attorney General of the US and is known for his role in prominent cases including the prosecution of Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo”, critiqued the credibility of the testimony of the specific witnesses involved in the Vyboh case, businessman Michal Suchoba and former financial administration head Frantisek Imrecze. While arguing that Imrecze and Suchoba’s testimony should not be taken seriously, Donoghue pointed to the apparent inconsistency of the witnesses’ statements, and underlined the fact that both allegedly committed significantly more serious crimes than Vyboh is accused of.

In addition to questioning Imrecze and Suchoba’s testimony, Donoghue cast doubt on the broader strategy of flipping witnesses which has become an integral part of anti-corruption prosecutions in Slovakia. This system has already netted criticism from multiple corners, including from Bratislava Regional Court judge Peter Samko, who described a “factory” of witnesses, in which investigators “put psychological pressure” on accused people to scare them into cooperating with the authorities and testifying against others.

The critiques levied by Donoghue against Slovakia’s widespread reliance on this type of testimony, however, carries particular weight given his long career dealing with anti-corruption cases and cases involving cooperating witnesses, as well as his international perspective. Donoghue argued that Slovakia’s use of flipped witnesses lacks the clear and strict rules customary in the United States. “Witnesses have a motive to deceive in order to reduce their punishment, or to avoid it altogether. As a prosecutor, I used [cooperating] witnesses, but I took them with skepticism”, Donoghue noted, underlining that in the American legal system—unlike, apparently, in Slovakia—testimony from collaborating witnesses must imperatively be supported by other corroborating evidence.

Donoghue’s involvement has cast an international spotlight on Slovakia’s use of collaborating witnesses which will exacerbate existing questions over whether Bratislava’s anti-corruption drive is efficient and compliant with the rule of law. Cracking down on graft was the key promise which brought ruling party OLaNO to power in Slovakia’s 2020 parliamentary elections, and it has become an increasingly important pledge for OLaNO’s electoral future after slumping poll ratings and a “chaotic” management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anti-corruption prosecutions have increased under the OLaNO government, something that the EU has highlighted positively in its annual rule of law report, but the overreliance on collaborating witnesses has troubled experts, as has the focus on prosecuting individuals connected to the two main opposition parties, Smer SD and HLAS. Both Smer and HLAS are currently polling significantly higher than OLaNO, leaving the door open to allegations of political interference in the judiciary.

The recent indictment of Smer party leader and former Prime Minister Robert Fico has ratcheted up these accusations, with Fico writing to EU officials labelling the investigation “a political process with the aim of destroying the opposition” and warning of the “end of democracy” in Slovakia. Slovakian MPs are debating whether to lift Fico’s parliamentary immunity, a move which could allow him to be taken into custody in response to the serious charges that he founded and headed a criminal organization while in office as PM.

While a number of Slovak politicians have expressed their satisfaction with Fico’s high-profile indictment—“finally it’s the turn of the people at the top of the pyramid”, said Deputy Prime Minister Veronika Remišová—others are less sanguine. “I’m not sure that [prosecuting Fico] is a good thing,” former MP Béla Bugár argued. “It’s a delicate thing, because if they make a mistake, it will be very difficult to correct”. OLaNO premier Eduard Heger, meanwhile, noted after the indictment that he hoped the decision to charge Fico and other prominent opposition figures was supported by evidence. With Slovakia’s system of flipping witnesses now under an international microscope, Slovakian prosecutors will undoubtedly have to work twice as hard to procure sufficient evidence to avoid accusations of political prosecution.

 

Image: public domain image, Wikimedia Commons

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