January 11, 2013 / 5:43 PM / 5 years ago

Czech government faces no-confidence vote over prison amnesty

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech opposition will try to topple the government next week in a no-confidence vote called over an amnesty that freed thousands of prisoners and halted investigation of some financial crimes.

The amnesty, announced by President Vaclav Klaus on January 1, before the end of his final term in March, was widely criticized in the country of 10 million people who are exasperated by chronic corruption.

The government, which has lost its parliamentary majority through a series of defections, has to rely on independent votes but is likely to survive the challenge, as it has on numerous previous occasions when attempts were made to bring it down.

The center-left opposition targeted Prime Minister Petr Necas with the no-confidence vote because he countersigned the decision, as required by the constitution.

On Friday, the head of the lower house of parliament set the vote for January 17.

“(The amnesty) gives an inexplicable pardon to a string of the most serious economic crimes ... The government bears the responsibility for (Klaus‘s) decision,” Social Democrat Deputy Chairman Lubomir Zaoralek said in a statement.

Czech presidents do not wield much day-to-day power but the constitution allows them to grant pardons and amnesties.

Klaus’s move followed the example of Vaclav Havel, the first post-communist president, who gave an even more generous amnesty at the start of his first term in 1990, motivated by the wish to give prisoners chance for a new start in a free society.

Klaus’s amnesty freed over 6,000 of the country’s 23,000 prisoners and cancelled suspended sentences of thousands of others.

But the most controversial part was that it halted the prosecution of people in cases that have dragged on for longer than eight years and who face sentences of up to 10 years.

This includes dozens of cases of financial crime from the 1990s - an early post-communist era of privatization and wild capitalism.

The halted investigations include the disappearance of many millions of dollars from an investment fund, suspected asset stripping in a bank that collapsed and theft in companies that were pushed into bankruptcy.

Klaus was prime minister at the time and directed the country’s post-communist transformation.

Critics in Czech media have speculated whether Klaus’s move was aimed at protecting specific individuals, something he denied.

A group of members of the upper house of parliament said it would challenge the amnesty in the constitutional court, but lawyers have said there was small chance they could succeed. (Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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