Thousands rally across Slovakia to condemn changes to penal code proposed by populist prime minister

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People take part in a protest against a government plan to amend the penal code in Bratislava, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Slovakias president has voiced her strong opposition to a plan by the new government of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico to overhaul the countrys penal code. The plan approved by Fico's coalition government includes abolishing the special prosecutors office, which handles serious crimes such as graft and organized crime. (Jaroslav Novak/TASR via AP)

BRATISLAVA – Thousands of people rallied across Slovakia on Thursday as protests intensified against a plan by the new government of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico to amend the country’s penal code.

The protests came hours after President Zuzana Čaputová voiced her strong opposition to the changes, saying they could jeopardize the rule of law.

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The plan approved by Fico’s coalition government includes abolishing the special prosecutors’ office, which handles serious crimes such as graft, organized crime and extremism. Those cases would be taken over by prosecutors in regional offices, which haven’t dealt with such crimes for 20 years.

The planned changes also include a reduction in punishments for corruption and some other crimes, including the possibility of suspended sentences, and a significant shortening of the statute of limitations.

The coalition wants to use a fast-track parliamentary procedure to approve them.

The capital was among the 24 major cities and towns where protests took place, the biggest number since they started Dec 7 in Bratislava.

Richard Sulík, head of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity party told the crowd braving rain at Bratislava's jammed SNP square that the proposals look like they were drafted by the “mafia.”

“It's a shame what this pro-mafia coalition is doing,” Sulík said.

“Mafia, mafia,” people chanted.

Michal Šimečka, who heads the liberal Progressive Slovakia, the strongest opposition party, said the government has to “withdraw the insane legislation.”

“Today, the whole Europe is watching our fight for the rule of law and democracy,” Šimečka said.

“We won’t be silent,” the people responded.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament questioned Slovakia’s ability to fight corruption and protect the EU budget if the changes are adopted.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office has also said Slovakia’s plans threaten the protection of the EU’s financial interests and its anti-corruption framework.

Earlier on Thursday, Slovakia’s president voiced her strong opposition to the government's move.

In an address to Parliament, Čaputová said the proposed changes could harm the rule of law and cause “unpredictable” damage to society.

“It’s unprecedented for such serious changes in the penal code to take place without a proper legislative process,” Čaputová said.

Čaputová asked lawmakers to allow a proper review of the proposed changes before approving them.

The legislation needs parliamentary and presidential approval. The three-party coalition has a majority in Parliament, and Čaputová's expected veto could be overridden by a simple majority.

Čaputová said she is willing to bring a constitutional challenge of the legislation. It’s unclear how the Constitutional Court might rule.

Fico returned to power for the fourth time after his scandal-tainted leftist party won Sept. 30 parliamentary elections on a pro-Russia and anti-American platform.

A number of people linked to the party face prosecution in corruption scandals.

Fico's critics worry his return could lead Slovakia to abandon its pro-Western course and instead follow the direction of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

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