(CN) — Slovakia can pursue criminal charges against the country's former spy chief, a figure who went into hiding after he was accused in the high-profile abduction of the son of Slovakia's president in 1995, the European Union's top court ruled on Thursday.
Ivan Lexa, the former chief of Slovakia's secret services, argued that he cannot be prosecuted for the abduction because he was pardoned in 1998 and his arrest would amount to double jeopardy. But the European Court of Justice shot that argument down because the amnesty was later revoked and his criminal case was never tried before a court.
The abduction of Michal Kovac is one of Slovakia's darkest chapters following the end of communism. The country, split between Russia and the West, was struggling with power grabs and the rise of mafia groups. It joined the European Union in 2004 along with several other former communist countries.
The Bratislava judge presiding over the criminal proceedings against Lexa asked the EU's high court in Luxembourg whether it was lawful to prosecute him and 12 others, among them former secret service agents, who were granted amnesties. Judge Karol Posluch wondered if it would constitute double jeopardy because under Slovak law an amnesty is equivalent to an acquittal.
The pardons were revoked in 2017 and since then Slovak authorities have reopened cases against Lexa and the others for a series of crimes, including the abduction, robbery and extortion.
The Court of Justice said the accused are not at risk of being put on trial for the same crimes twice because their cases were never fully examined by Slovak courts. Thus, the high court said Slovakia can issue an arrest warrant against Lexa. The ruling was not immediately available, but it was announced in a court press release. An advocate general in June came to similar conclusions.
The high court said that the amnesty had the effect of discontinuing criminal prosecution “before the Slovak courts or tribunals could rule on the criminal liability of the persons being prosecuted.”
As such, the court said, Slovak courts have not yet made any determination about the “criminal liability of the accused persons concerned.”
Lexa was an ally of Vladimir Mecier, a former Slovak prime minister who was accused of being behind the abduction of then-President Michal Kovac's son, who shared the same name as his father. Kovac was Mecier's political rival.
Security agents were accused of snatching the son at a roadblock on a quiet road near Bratislava, slinging him into the trunk of a car, forcing him to drink a bottle of whisky, stunning him with electric shocks and abandoning him in front of an Austrian police station. A witness to the kidnapping was killed in a car explosion.
Kovac allegedly was taken to Austria in the hope that he would be arrested and sent to Germany, where he was involved in commercial legal dispute and accused of financial fraud. But Austria did not extradite him and the scandal over the abduction hurt Mecier politically.
Mecier denied any involvement by state agents in the kidnapping and he was able to grant amnesty to Lexa and the other former agents in 1998 when as prime minister he briefly took on the powers of Slovakia's president.
Still, facing arrest following the end of Mecier's reign and parliament stripping him of parliamentary immunity, Lexa fled Slovakia. He was found in 2002 in South Africa at a beach resort owned by a Slovak friend and he was extradited back to Slovakia. Since then, he has lived in seclusion in his native country. Mecier, too, has withdrawn from politics.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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