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Czech Republic: Alleged Murder Plot Casts Shadow Over Kavan, Foreign Ministry

A foiled plot to murder an investigative journalist in Prague allegedly leads to the former secretary-general of the Czech Foreign Ministry. As RFE/RL reports, the case is casting a shadow over former Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan as he assumes his new post as president of the United Nations General Assembly.

Prague, 23 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Police in the Czech Republic say a plot to murder one of the country's top investigative journalists was foiled when the hired killer turned himself in rather than carry out the plan.

What makes this case so serious is that one of the four alleged masterminds behind the plot is the former secretary-general and personnel chief of the Czech Foreign Ministry, Karel Srba, once the right-hand man of former Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan.

Srba and the other three suspects in the case have been in investigative custody since last week. Czech police spokeswoman Blanka Kosinova said, "The four indictees are accused of the criminal offense of preparing a murder."

Kavan flew to New York yesterday to take up his post as president of the United Nations General Assembly. On learning that Srba had been arrested, Kavan expressed "utter surprise."

Srba's lawyer has not yet commented on the case against his client.

Today, Senator and former Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec, a political independent, called on Kavan to be "sensible enough" to resign his post as president of the UN General Assembly. He said it would be a "catastrophe" for the Czech Republic if its representative were to become entangled in what he called "this awful affair."

Zieleniec accused Kavan of being "at least co-responsible for the atmosphere of criminal behavior that existed at the Foreign Ministry, for presenting it as something quite normal, for praising Srba's moral qualities."

Similarly, Parliamentary Foreign Committee Chairman Lubomir Zaoralek of Kavan's Social Democratic Party, commented on the case, saying that, "a politician must bear responsibility for the kind of people he gives opportunities to in high posts."

In the past, Kavan has defended Srba from accusations of misconduct and survived past scandals surrounding Srba's alleged collaboration with the communist secret police, as well as abuse of parliamentary immunity.

Ironically, Kavan appointed Srba in 1998 to lead the "clean-hands" anticorruption drive at the Foreign Ministry. That came after Srba had been forced to leave the Health Ministry the previous year, after it was revealed he had ordered hospital audits to be performed by a company he was providing legal services for. Srba is not a lawyer.

In March 2001, Srba was forced to resign over questionable practices involving the sale of the residential portion of the Czech embassy compound in Moscow.

Though the four alleged masterminds are in custody, the man police say was hired by a south Bohemian businessman to commit the journalist's murder, Karel Rzepiel, is free, having told all to the police one day before the murder was to take place. Police say Rzepiel helped them uncover the chain of command that led them to Srba.

Police informed Prague journalist Sabina Slonkova of the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" of the plot to kill her two weeks ago and kept her under guard until arresting the plotters on 18-19 July.

Slonkova wrote an article with her colleague Jiri Kubik on 29 June that quoted a court-appointed expert as saying the sale of Czech House in Moscow resulted in a loss to the Czech Republic of $3.3 million. The article said that police suspected Srba of having committed criminal offenses and had forwarded the case to a special department of the Prague Prosecutor's Office that handles serious economic crimes.

Kavan, as recently as last November, insisted the loss to the Czech state was only 1 percent of that figure, or just $33,000.

Slonkova's article also reiterated that Srba had bought land, built a house, and reconstructed two farms at a cost of $330,000 without having borrowed any money. Srba claimed he got the money from his mother, who in turn says she found it in a shoe box that her deceased husband had regularly refilled.

In an earlier story in June 2001, Slonkova and Kubik had accused Srba of being an agent of military intelligence, which is not regulated by Czech law but only by internal directives. Srba denied those claims.

Slonkova noted that she has written numerous articles in recent years about various financial scandals involving Srba. "We took a look at his property ownership, and we determined that he had accrued property to an extent that no civil servant could ever afford on a salary of 40,000 [Czech crowns, or $1,330, a month]," Slonkova said.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Petruska Sustrova, a former Czech deputy interior minister and a columnist for the rival daily "Lidove Noviny," said the extent of the scandal is hard to fathom. "The reality that this mafioso, this criminal, was for a long time the right hand of a minister is really scary. I don't think that in the context, [the plot] is all that surprising since 'Mlada fronta Dnes' published enough about Srba so that everyone could understand that this is not a matter of some frightened, plain old bureaucrat taking a bribe, but a big-time criminal," Sustrova said.

Sustrova said that despite the violent nature of the current scandal, the Czech Republic is not becoming a part of the so-called Wild East. "Organized crime is so ingrained in Ukraine and in the rest of post-Soviet society -- with the exception of the Baltic republics -- that it is no longer possible in many cases to figure out who is a civil servant and who is in charge of a local or affiliated mafia. I don't think that's the case in the Czech Republic," Sustrova said.

Nevertheless, Sustrova said she believes it was "impossible for Srba to have kept his true face secret," adding that, "many people who had met Srba said he is a bully who makes threats and commits blackmail."

Even more disturbing, Sustrova said, is that Kavan gave Srba full run of the Foreign Ministry as secretary-general, with full command over the ministry's personnel. "I can't understand at all how or if it is at all possible that Jan Kavan for a long time cooperated with a person without noticing that he is an extortionist and a gangster," Sustrova said.

The international media-monitoring group Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter to Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross describing the alleged plot against Slonkova as "an extremely serious development." The group's secretary-general, Robert Menard, said, "We ask you to see that nobody escapes punishment, whatever the position, especially if it is true that one or more top Foreign Ministry officials ordered the murder or knew about the plan."

Menard said the Czech Republic must "firmly turn the page" on practices he said are still common in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He concluded by saying that with only a few months left before the Czech Republic joins the European Union, "the police and courts must indicate, through exemplary measures, that they will no longer compromise where press freedom is concerned."

This is not the first foiled plot to kill a Czech journalist. A case dating back to 1993, which is still in the courts, concerns an alleged plot by a north Moravian businessman to kill a Prague tabloid journalist.

And in three separate incidents -- in 1994, 1997, and 1999 -- reporters for the private Czech television station Nova were attacked. One was shot at; another was physically attacked by two masked men; and the brakes on a third reporter's car were damaged, causing an accident. Two years ago, a reporter at Czech public television was attacked, shortly after he was involved in the publication of a book containing large portions of Kavan's communist-era secret-police file.