The former chief of Slovakia's intelligence service, Ivan Lexa, was questioned by prosecutors in Bratislava today. South Africa deported Lexa to Slovakia yesterday to face charges of kidnapping, fraud, and abuse of power. He fled Slovakia two years ago on a diplomatic passport and has been missing ever since. As RFE/RL reports, Lexa's return and imprisonment comes just two months before parliamentary elections and could influence the direction of the campaign.
Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Former Slovak intelligence chief Ivan Lexa returned to Bratislava under Interpol escort from South Africa yesterday and was immediately taken in an armored personnel carrier to jail.
Lexa told Slovak prosecutors today his parliamentary immunity and other rights are being violated. He also challenged the objectivity of judges in the Bratislava regional court, which is to decide this weekend whether to keep him in custody or release him pending trial.
Lexa stands accused of involvement in seven different criminal cases. He pleaded innocent today to charges of fraud, abuse of power, sabotage, and abduction.
South African police arrested Lexa on 14 July after he was found to be in the country illegally on false documents. Slovak Interior Ministry spokesman Karol Tonka said: "Mr. Lexa was escorted from the Republic of South Africa by two agents of their branch of Interpol. He traveled on a replacement travel document that our mission there gave him. Here, according to standard procedures and protocol, the South African agents handed Mr. Lexa over to our agent from Interpol."
Lexa appeared far slimmer and fitter than when he fled Slovakia two years ago as an overweight ex-spy chief. Reporters who followed his case for years and flew with him from Johannesburg to Zurich yesterday said he was unrecognizable.
During in-flight interviews, he denounced the Slovak media and alleged that his deportation was timed to coincide with the upcoming parliamentary election campaign.
Tonka said Lexa is currently being held on the basis of international and national warrants for his arrest. But Lexa's lawyer, Lubomir Hlbocan, said Lexa was forcibly deported from South Africa despite a court order to the contrary. "Mr. Lexa was placed on a Swiss Airlines flight, [though] a court had decided that he could not leave the Republic of South Africa [without appearing at a hearing]. That decision was not respected," Hlbocan said.
Confusion over the court order delayed the departure of the Swiss flight by nearly three hours.
The former intelligence chief is suspected of having played a key role in the 1995 kidnapping of the adult son of Slovakia's president at the time, Michal Kovac. The abduction occurred while Lexa was in then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's office. Both men have refused to testify in the case.
The abduction was intended to cause sufficient psychological stress to the president that he would resign.
Kovac junior later managed to escape from the trunk of a car parked outside the police station in the Austrian border town of Hainburg. The case made international headlines at the time.
Lexa secretly left Slovakia two years ago when he faced a likely detention.
He said he left because he alleges the fundamental principles of rights and democracy were being trampled in Slovakia. He has declined to say publicly how or where he spent the past two years.
Lexa is a member of Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, or HZDS. The party is well ahead in polls in advance of parliamentary elections in September. However, Western governments have repeatedly warned that if Meciar's party takes power after the elections, Slovakia's chances of gaining membership in NATO and the European Union would be jeopardized.
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has promised to bring Lexa to justice before the next elections, but with so little time left it is unlikely he will succeed.
Milan Zitny is a leading analyst of Slovak political affairs at RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau, and has followed the Lexa and Meciar scandals from the beginning. He said HZDS supporters are unlikely to change because of any alleged wrongdoing by Lexa. "The HZDS leadership has taken it very calmly and HZDS's deputy chairman, Rudolf Ziak, has said they are counting on the speed and independence of the Slovak courts. One can even say that HZDS is not afraid of the presence of Ivan Lexa in Slovakia. It is logical because HZDS voters don't let themselves be influenced, but as the polls so far have confirmed, they are standing very firmly behind HZDS Chairman Vladimir Meciar," Zitny said.
However, Zitny said some of the parties in the ruling coalition, especially the two Christian Democratic parties (HDH and Dzurinda's SDKU), can use Lexa's return to their advantage. These parties, together with the Hungarian coalition, have tried to challenge Meciar's March 1998 amnesty of Lexa and others.
Meciar ordered the amnesty with immediate effect the day President Kovac's term in office expired. As no immediate successor to Kovac had been elected at the time, Meciar ordered the amnesty, having assumed certain presidential powers.
The Christian Democratic parties consider the abduction of Michal Kovac junior to Austria a terrorist act carried out by state organs and thus not applicable under the amnesty.
Zitny said that in the unlikely event that Lexa is tried for sabotage before the 21 September elections, the court probably will acquit him "on HZDS political orders." While in office, Meciar replaced many judges with pro-HZDS appointees.
For his part, ex-president Kovac expressed joy at the news of Lexa's forced return to Slovakia, though adding that he has forgiven the former spy chief and does not seek revenge. Moreover, he said that if he were still president he would pardon Lexa after a trial.