By Jan Lopatka
(Reuters) -Slovakia’s new government led by political veteran Robert Fico approved a plan on Wednesday to scrap a special prosecutor’s office focused on crimes including corruption, sparking opposition cries of foul play.
President Zuzana Caputova has criticised the plan as a “step backwards”, and it will be closely watched in Brussels for any potential damage to the rule of law – an issue that has pitted neighbours Poland and Hungary against the European Union.
The special prosecution unit has operated since 2004.
It has handled dozens of cases involving graft in police, judiciary and politics since 2021 while under the leadership of Daniel Lipsic, who served as interior minister in a government that took power from Fico between 2010 and 2012 – a connection that has irked Fico.
The cabinet proposed to shut down the unit, the USP, in a rapid legislative process that could be completed in weeks. Live cases and personnel would be transferred to other prosecutors’ offices.
Fico told a press conference that the USP had violated human rights in how it carried out proceedings and had to be disbanded.
“This evil in the form of Lipsic must end, and we are doing that forcefully and thoroughly,” Fico said.
Fico, who was forced to resign by mass protests in 2018 after the murder of a journalist investigating corruption, has long called the USP politically bent against his SMER party and has spoken in favour of getting Lipsic out. The USP also oversaw the murder investigation.
The European Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Fico met the Commission’s top justice official, Didier Reynders, last week, with the EU side expressing concern about his plans, officials in Brussels said.
Among cases overseen by the USP is that of central bank governor and former SMER finance minister Peter Kazimir who has been on trial over alleged bribery, which he denies.
While in opposition, Fico himself had faced police charges, later dropped, that he used information from police and tax authorities to discredit political rivals. He said at the time it was political revenge.
Since winning the election on Sept. 30, he has repeatedly said he will act in a way acceptable to the European Commission to avoid threatening the country’s access to EU funds – avoiding punishment that Hungary and Poland have faced over damaging democratic checks and balances.
The main opposition party, Progressive Slovakia – which was not in the previous government – said the government acted to “achieve impunity and revenge”.
“This is blitzkrieg against the rule of law,” party chief Michal Simecka told a news conference shown live on television.
“We will stand up to this sternly – in parliament, in the public space, in the European Union,” Simecka said earlier in a statement.
Following the 2020 election victory of parties promising to weed out graft, a number of cases were opened against business leaders, judicial and police officers.
According to Slovak media, 40 people have been sentenced in the sweep and another 130 are being investigated or tried.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague, additonal reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels;Editing by Alison Williams and Bernadette Baum)