Top prosecutor on the future of the judiciary
Pavel Zeman urges the creation of a special unit to address corruption
Posted: March 28, 2012
Supreme State Attorney Pavel Zeman recently played a key role in the struggle to fire disgraced Prague prosecutor Vlastimil Rampula.
Supreme State Attorney Pavel Zeman is the country's top prosecutor. He took the post in January 2011, replacing Renata Vesecká, who was dismissed in the wake of years of allegations - and at least one court finding - that she intentionally covered up corruption prosecutions at the behest of powerful political actors.
Prior to taking the supreme state attorney job, Zeman had worked as a prosecutor and spent the previous seven years as the Czech Republic's representative to Eurojust, an European Union body based in The Hague that coordinates prosecutions of cross-border crime.
More recently, Zeman has played a key role in a struggle to fire Prague Prosecutor Vlastimil Rampula, a Vesecká appointee who earned the nickname "The Sweeper" for his willingness to selectively not prosecute politically charged criminal cases. Rampula was reinstated to his post in February after Prague Municipal Court ruled Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil did not prove Rampula was failing to uphold his duties.
Within days of being back on the job, Rampula staged a hastily called press conference and played videos of what he said were people breaking into the office of one of his deputies. The people on the video turned out to be police officers from the organized crime unit, and Zeman has filed a criminal complaint against Rampula for compromising an ongoing investigation.
Education: Law degree from Charles University
Previous work experience: Trainee prosecutor in Plzeň; prosecutor in Brno and member of the Supreme State Attorney's office; Czech representative at Eurojust in The Hague
Zeman, who is based in Brno, sat down with The Prague Post during a recent business trip to Prague to talk about efforts to reform the judicial system and prosecute corruption.
The Prague Post: Why are people never tried or convicted of corruption in the Czech Republic?
Pavel Zeman: I wouldn't put it so strongly. However, you touch on the perception in society that there is a big problem with corruption. We are in 57th place on Transparency International's list. You also touch on the idea that none of the high-level politicians has been convicted, which is only partly true because there have been some.
TPP: I think there was just one, the so-called "Clean Hands" case of 1998?
PZ: (Smiles) Yes, the Clean Hands case. But if I finish my point, in the past year we had the conviction of a vice-mayor in Brno. We had the case of the regional council in north Bohemia. There were two judges in north Bohemia, and this may seem like a minor thing, but it shows we are willing to clean up our own house. We need to make some other changes and add new tools for combating corruption.
TPP: What new tools would you add?
PZ: We need a special team for combating corruption on the prosecutorial level. We need to concentrate expertise and create really good communication with the police. The police should become more a partner of the prosecutor. It is important for the prosecutor and the police to work together early in the investigative process, from the very beginning, to build up a plan of action. It would be important to have a very good prosecutor heading this new office.
TPP: Who would choose this person?
PZ: The Supreme State Attorney. I have a very strong view on this. As soon as we allow the politicians to be involved in the appointment process, there is a risk that the politicians would try to influence the things going on in the unit. There must be a high wall between politicians and this office.
TPP: Are the laws as currently written actually strong enough to prosecute corruption? Are there actual legislative changes that need to be made?
PZ: We can live with the laws we have. What are slightly problematic for us are the rules on intercepting and getting information on communications. Information from past telecommunications is how we can get evidence. Information from someone's mobile phone is usually the evidence they have been a certain place or that they have communicated with one person or another.
TPP: So you need more freedom to do these types of things?
PZ: With wiretaps, I think we can cope with what we have. Regarding telecommunication information, we would need a little bit more. Telecommunication companies are not obliged to store certain data that is important for us. That is a legislative change.
TPP: So, let's get to Rampula. To an outsider, it seems like he can't be fired. You wanted him fired, the justice minister wanted him fired, but it seems the system doesn't allow it, right?
PZ: The system allows it, but it is very hard. We don't need to speak directly on the case of Rampula; with any chief prosecutor there are certain conditions that have to be met. There has to be a violation of the obligations of the chief prosecutor position. Meanwhile, if you want to fire the Supreme State Attorney, you can do it any Wednesday [the day of the week the cabinet meets]. Perhaps, something is not balanced.
TPP: Weren't some of these rules changed last year?
PZ: No, what was changed was not the legislation, but the approach. In the past the Justice Minister and Supreme State Attorney could make this decision, now it must go through an administrative process. It can be reviewed by a court. That is what happened. The Minister of Justice has filed an appeal against this decision [to reinstate Rampula] with the Supreme Administrative Court. I am looking forward to reading their decision. I strongly believe the Supreme Administrative Court can give some criteria about the grounds for dismissing a prosecutor.
TPP: There was a law that was meant to give more power to be able to remove prosecutors that has been stalled in the government since the fall, yes?
PZ: You are right. Unfortunately, it hasn't gone through the government to Parliament.
TPP: Why do you think it is stalled there?
PZ: The official explanation was they prefer to have a more complex law. As we are so far down the road of preparing this law, I do support it. It introduces a mandate for chief prosecutors of seven years, renewable once and the prosecutor general would have a 10 year mandate, nonrenewable. It would allow prosecutors to be removed at the request of the Justice Minister and reviewed by the Supreme Administrative Court. I support this law.
TPP: What is Rampula's status now? You have also filed a separate criminal complaint against him?
PZ: Yes. I filed it about two weeks ago. The matter of the complaint is related to his behavior in presenting this videotape to the public. It should have been clear to him that it was not criminal behavior, but the behavior of some security forces. Without asking anybody, without asking me, he played these tapes. It created huge mistrust among the public toward the prosecutor's office, because the public was unsure what was going on. He presented it like it was criminal behavior.
TPP: Presenting these videos in public at all is illegal, isn't it?
PZ: That is up to the courts. If this was the action of security forces, it is covered by a judge, and it is confidential. If I was in his position, my first action would have been to call me and wait for an answer. We talked the day before. He didn't mention the situation at all.
TPP: In the Czech legal system, prosecutors are quite restricted in what they can choose to prosecute or not, correct? They are obliged to prosecute everything, aren't they?
PZ: You are referring to the principles that govern the legal procedure. In our system, there is the principle of legality and officiality - that the prosecutor is obliged to prosecute any single criminal behavior he or she has knowledge of. Whereas in other places, you have the principle of opportunity, where the prosecutor has the possibility to say, 'I will prosecute this; this, I will not.'
TPP: This principle would seem particularly relevant in Rampula's case, no?
Benjamin Cunningham can be reached at