Czech lawmakers charging president with treason

Karel Janicek/AP Writer

The Czech Republic’s conservative President Vaclav Klaus is facing high treason charges over his controversial amnesty of thousands of prison inmates and others, an unprecedented case that is tainting his final days in the post after a rocky decade.

Lawmakers in Parliament’s upper house, which is dominated by the leftwing opposition, voted Monday to file charges at the Constitutional Court.

Marking the country’s 20th anniversary of independence on Jan. 1, Klaus used a traditional tool of Czech presidents and ordered the release of more than 6,000 inmates serving short prison terms. His amnesty also halted court proceedings in several high-profile fraud cases on the grounds that he wanted to stop “endless criminal proceedings,” infuriating many Czechs who are fed up with widespread corruption.

Klaus had already polarized the public during his two terms in the normally ceremonial post with his strident views questioning the EU, gay rights and global warming, but frustration with him has since mushroomed. About 73,000 Czechs have signed a petition backing the charges, while Klaus’ portrait has been torn down in schools and offices across the country.

The anger his marred his legacy as a finance minister and prime minister who oversaw the Czech Republic’s tricky, post-communist transition to free markets in the 1990s.

Senators in the 81-seat house voted 38-30 to file charges, Senate speaker Milan Stech said.

The Constitutional Court is expected to deal with the case quickly but it is still likely to be weeks before a verdict comes. The worst punishment Klaus faces is the loss of the presidential job, which ends Thursday anyway, and he would be forbidden from ever running again.

If found guilty, he would also lose about $5,000 a month from a state pension for former presidents, including a contribution to pay for his office.

Klaus opponents said their goal was not to punish him but to help clarify the rules for the future.

“We want to know how far a president can go,” said Senator Miroslav Antl, one of those behind the charges.

“The Senate was not in a position to be silent,” said his colleague Jiri Dienstbier who will represent the Senate at the court. “The Senate fulfilled its duty.”

Prime Minister Petr Necas, who is chairman of the conservative Civic Democratic Party founded by Klaus, condemned the move, calling it “an attack on our country’s reputation.”

“It is purely motivated by personal hatred,” Necas told Czech public television.

A group of 30 senators has already challenged Klaus’ decree at the Constitutional Court.

Klaus has previously said he doesn’t regret the amnesty and “would do it again in absolutely the same way.”

The senators also charged Klaus with failing to act in line with the Constitution in several other cases. Among them, they say he delayed ratification of an EU reform treaty and refused to sign the eurozone’s new bailout fund despite Parliament’s approval.

Klaus’ rejection of the multi-billion European Stability Mechanism had no legal bearing on the fund’s adoption but highlighted the president’s status as one of the most vocal opponents of greater EU integration. The country would take on no financial obligations by approving the fund until it joins the euro.