By Radovan Stoklasa and Jan Lopatka
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Thousands of Slovaks gathered in nearly 20 cities on Thursday to protest Prime Minister Robert Fico’s efforts to close a special prosecutor’s office charged with investigating high-profile crimes, including cases close to the Prime Minister.
The protests, called by pro-West liberal and conservative opposition parties and civic activists, were the fourth to take place since Fico proposed rapid prosecutorial and criminal law reforms in December, which also sparked protests concerns to the European Commission and the United States. .
His plan includes abolishing the Office of the Special Prosecutor (USP) responsible for investigating organized crime and corruption cases, limiting whistleblower protections and reducing penalties for financial crimes.
“There is a threat that… justice for all will turn into amnesty and protection of people close to the ruling coalition, for past and future acts,” said Marian Caucik, deputy head of the Democratic opposition party -Christian, during a gathering in Bratislava. .
People carrying flags of the European Union and Slovakia gathered in freezing temperatures in a downtown square chanting “Shame!” and “Enough of Fico!”. A banner read “Opposition, unite against the mafia”.
Police estimated the turnout at 20,000 people, news website dennikn.sk reported. Rallies in other cities attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of people, Slovak media reported.
Forced to resign after massive protests in 2018 following the murder of anti-corruption journalist Jan Kuciak, Fico returned to power after September elections.
He has long accused the USP, created in 2004, and its leader Daniel Lipsic, former justice minister in a non-Fico government, of being politically biased against his left-wing party, the SMER-SSD. .
Opposition parties blocked Fico’s party and its allies from passing the proposed reforms before Christmas, but Parliament debated the proposal again this week.
Following the 2020 election victory of parties promising to eliminate corruption, the USP opened a number of cases against business executives, magistrates and police officers.
According to Slovak media, 40 people have been convicted while 130 others are under investigation or on trial.
Besides Kuciak’s murder, the office handled a case against former SMER-SSD Finance Minister and current central bank governor Peter Kazimir, who was accused of corruption, which he denies.
He also oversaw abuses of power and other accusations against former police chief and now Fico ally and SMER MP Tibor Gaspar. He denies any wrongdoing.
While in opposition, Fico was accused by the police, later dropped, of using information from police and tax authorities to discredit his political rivals. He said at the time that it was political revenge.
(Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa in Bratislava and Jan Lopatka in Prague; editing by Kirsten Donovan)
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