At the end of his last New Year address as the Czech president, Václav Klaus offered a "shocker" and declared a partial amnesty that has freed about 1/3 of the prisoners. A wave of hysterical criticism has emerged and it is still strengthening. I conjecture that the passionate critics (a group that unfortunately includes almost all people around me who care one way or another; and among the famous people, only the Archbishop of Prague, ex-boss of National Gallery Knížák, several Klaus' aides, and your humble correspondent have defended the decision) don't have a clue about the background – for example, they don't have a clue about most of the facts below. They don't understand why amnesties exist at all.
One of the legal traditions in the Czech lands that have survived since the feudal era is the president's right to declare amnesty and to release prisoners. Amnesties are acts by which the king and/or the emperor could have shown his or her mercy and magnanimity – and the job of the Czech president emulates the emperor in various formal and informal ways and amnesty is one of them. Franz Joseph I of Austria declared the most famous general amnesty in 1857 (as famous one as Napoleon's 1815 amnesty and a few others).
During the imperial era, amnesties repeatedly took place and they had consequences that were not negligible at all. For example, on January 5th, 1917, almost exactly 95 years ago, Charles I of Austria, our last "kaiser" and the last Czech king, declared an amnesty that have changed the lives of many people. Amnesties were never vacuous formalities.
The Bory prison in Pilsen is famous – and quite a good piece of architecture, I would say. The first inmates moved in in 1878.
Among them were Mr Karel Kramář who would become Czechoslovakia's first prime minister on the following year, 1918, and Dr Alois Rašín, our coming first ingenious finance minister (also from 1918) who managed to organize the currency split and other key procedures, almost by himself. They had received nothing less than death penalties.
Just to be sure, Kramář and Rašín were convicted for spying and high treason. They would organize various pan-Slavic conferences and similar things. The death penalties were first reduced to 20 years before they were released altogether. For Rašín, the 1916 death penalty (also for his activities in the Czech independence movement during the First World War, "Maffie", which had about 200 members) wasn't his first contact with prisons and punishments. In 1894, as a politically active student of law (and a fresh holder of the degree), he received 2 years for his work for "Omladina" and the related Czech Young Party. He was jailed here in Pilsen (Bory) but was released during the 1895 amnesty.
Amnesties continued when Czechoslovakia was created. This institute played a special role during communism, too. And be sure that it has affected the lives of the most powerful folks including future communist presidents, too. For example, a young Slovak communist named Dr Gustáv Husák was sentenced (by his fellow but not friendly communists) for spying and high treason in a 1954 process with "burgeois nationalists" running since the early 1950s. He was arguably the most defiant "felon" so a death penalty was rather likely instead of the life in prison he had finally gotten. He may have been lucky that both Stalin and Gottwald died in 1953, shortly before the verdict, so the latter was softened.
Husák was freed by the comprehensive 1960 amnesty by communist president Mr Antonín Novotný. In 1963, he was fully rehabilitated. Ironically enough, he would become the boss of the communist party in 1969, a year after the "not too nationalist" Soviet occupation, and the president of Czechoslovakia since 1975. He kept this job until the 1989 Velvet Revolution so Czechoslovakia spent the last 25 years under a president who would be jailed for the whole life (or executed) if amnesties didn't exist much like it has spent the first decade or two with prime ministers and finance ministers whose death penalty was canceled by an earlier amnesty.
Needless to say, on December 29th, 1989 (I remember the day very well), he was replaced by another chap, Mr Václav Havel, who had been jailed just two months earlier (most often, Havel was arrested here in Pilsen-Bory, too; at some point, he was arrested – and playing chess – here together with the current Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka whom I mentioned as a Klaus defender at the top). Of course, his own sentences were rather quickly canceled, together with those of other political prisoners.
Just a week later, in early January 1990, Havel made one of his first political decisions as the Czechoslovak president. We've talked about all these amnesties and their impact on the Czechoslovak presidents and you could already be bored by this stuff. You may guess what was Havel's first major decision. Yes, it was a major amnesty again. ;-)
About 1/2 of the 30,000+ Czechoslovak prisoners as of early 1990 were freed! Be sure that those extra 15,000 or so criminals that could suddenly run on the street did make some difference (these 15,000 people were only responsible for 9% of the crime in 1990). Some of them returned to the prison soon; most of them didn't. Havel was criticized by various people. But the gesture has improved the life of many people who sort of deserved it, too.
What I need to emphasize is that a vast majority of the prisoners who were released during various amnesties had been arrested for various "economic crimes". Of course that the political prisoners (but even the murderers etc.) were rather rare – they are just the most interesting tip of an iceberg to write about. But of course that most prisoners serve their time for some "more ordinary" crimes.
Czechoslovakia split exactly 20 years ago, in January 1993, and Havel quickly became the Czech president. During the ten years of his tenure as a Czech president, 1993-2003, Havel granted about 2,000 individual pardons (not to speak about two later amnesties which were negligible relatively to that of 1990: only hundreds of prisoners). Klaus hadn't liked this excessive activity too much and you may see this fact in the numbers, too. Klaus has only granted about 400 pardons during his 10 years. Quite a difference.
Klaus would never declare an amnesty but he always kept this option open, suggesting that an amnesty could take place at the end of his tenure. And that's what we're seeing these days. The amnesty was officially a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the separate Czech Republic (I don't claim that most Czechs would celebrate that we "lost" Slovakia in 1993).
Klaus' amnesty has freed about 7,000 people, between 1/3 and 1/4 of the 25,000- prisoners as of early 2013. So the prisons won't be this overcrowded. The amnesty also saved some people from "forced work" – let's say 20,000 folks won't have to clean the sidewalks. Some celebrities whose struggles with the law are always covered by media – e.g. the Slovak/Czech singer Dara Rolins, a perpetrator of a bad fatal car accident – were freed, too. Some trials were canceled, especially those that take more than 8 years or something like that. I think it's sensible because these super-slow trials cease to be about justice, the memory of the relevant folks is decaying so an accurate judgement is getting less likely. Also, lots of innocent people may be harassed by courts for 8 years which is just bad. Moreover, all such super-slow trials are symptoms as well as partial causes of the inefficiency of our judicial system. (We've been criticized for these "infinite trials" by the European Court of Justice, too.)
Klaus' rules identifying who is freed are very general. A condition is defined on a few general quantities such as the date of the verdict, the total sentence, and a few others. It was his very goal to describe the amnesty "macroscopically" and to avoid intrusion into special and individual cases – Klaus insists he hasn't studied any and hasn't thought about any.
Nevertheless, we see tons of speculations whom Klaus may have wanted to help. I am tired of it because there's no credible evidence – there's even no suggestive evidence of anything like that. People spreading these speculations only show that they are malicious and they have negative prejudices about Klaus (or all politicians?).
There is this special focus of the critics on the economic crime and "big corruption scandals", something they would never forgive (we hear). First of all, I don't think that the perpetrators of "economic crimes" in the most inclusive sense represent the most dangerous or most distasteful group of prisoners. Second of all, the linking of the amnesty to "big corruption scandals" is preposterous because the perpetrators of "big corruption crimes" were sentenced to so long sentences in prison that they're clearly omitted from the amnesty.
I am extremely far from believing that it's a "good thing" for every prisoner who was released that he or she was released. We're talking about 7,000, quite a large group of folks. It's likely that the number of folks for which I would say that the overall sign is "plus" is comparably large to the group of those for which I would say that it is "minus". The victims of some crimes whose culprits were just freed – and whose prosecution may have been stopped altogether – may be angry and they may suffer (usually financially).
But I see no reason to be sure about the overall negative sign of the whole event.
The amnesty has unquestionably been one thing: a somewhat surprising event. I think that it's a good thing. For amnesties to be sufficiently unpredictable (so that criminals can't plan the timing of their crimes), amnesties have to be somewhat surprising, uncertain, and their extent must be unknown in advance, of course. All these basic conditions were satisfied. If you agree that it's the right thing, much of the "excitement" comes from the "surprise factor". But I think it's just bad if someone hysterically reacts to any surprise.
I just don't understand any of the "big picture" criticisms of this amnesty. They don't make any sense to me whatsoever. It's good that Klaus hasn't tried to cherry-pick the crimes. And he has the right to grant pardons and declare amnesties. In fact, about 2/3 of Czechs in recent polls claimed that they want to preserve the president's right to declare amnesties. So the people who ultimately admit that they criticize the institute of amnesties itself really belong to a loud minority.
One may claim – and one is allowed to say – that amnesties are an obsolete institute that doesn't belong to a modern state. Fine. Think whatever you want. But the reality is that they're still a part of our laws and traditions. We have various traces of the feudal era and at least some of them make our nation's life better, at least sometimes.
Also, quite generally, I think that the critics don't understand the "division of labor and responsibilities". It's really none of their business. There are certain decisions that are made or may be made by the government; other decisions that may be made by the president. It's clear that when it comes to any decision, e.g. a decision by the president, you may find people who would disagree with that decision. They wouldn't decide in this way if they were the president themselves. But the matter of fact is that they are not the president. They were not able to win the relevant election etc. So why don't they just get used to the idea that it's up to someone else to decide about similar things?
The right to declare amnesties is really a "business as usual" part of our judicial and constitutional system – and one that has saved the lives of numerous future leaders of our nation in the past, as I have mentioned. So it's nonsensical to suggest that Klaus violated the law or morality by declaring an amnesty. It is exactly as nonsensical as if you say that a baker is a jerk or criminal because he bakes bread in his bakery. Bakers usually produce more than 1 bread per 10 years but that's just a quantitative difference – one that shows that the presidents' job operates with longer timescales than the bakers' job.
Needless to say, this anti-amnesty hysteria isn't an isolated phenomenon. It is a part of the "bad mood" and "anti-politicians bias" that started to spread in our society once again (if it has ever been suppressed at all). Quite generally, I think that all these moods are powered by demagogues and Hitler wannabes; they are intrinsically nothing else than an anti-democratic propaganda. All these opinions that politicians are morally worse people than the "good ordinary people" are just piles of rubbish, an artifact of decades of populism that flattered the "ordinary people" with many kinds of lies. A huge fraction of "ordinary people" just sucks. They are assholes, criminals, liars, hypocrites, but this very proposition has become politically incorrect because one is supposed to pretend that being "ordinary" means the same thing as being Jesus Christ (minus all His own defects, but let me omit the discussion about those).
But it surely doesn't. Politicians in a democratic country reflect the values of the population. They don't reflect it accurately – but if there is a systematic difference, I believe that the average politicians are less egotist and they care about the well-being of others (and the nation as an abstract concept) more than the average people do. So could the folks please stop hyping the idiotic separation to "us" and "them" and to stop waiting for new messiahs?
I won't thank because I know this is clearly too much to ask.