(Bloomberg) — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across Slovakia to protest a proposed overhaul of the judiciary by Prime Minister Robert Fico, the European Union’s latest leader accused of eroding democratic standards and the rule of law.
In power since October, Fico is coming under mounting pressure from the public, opposition and the EU to abolish or scale back the plans, which include a revamp of the penal code and scrapping a prosecutor’s office tasked with probing corruption and serious crime.
Since winning his fourth term in office, Fico has aligned himself with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister long embroiled in disputes with the EU over democratic backsliding. During a visit to Budapest this week, Fico pledged to shield Hungary from any potential moves to strip Orban’s government from exercising its vote in the EU.
Around 25,000 Slovaks attended a rally in the capital Bratislava late Thursday, according to local media estimates, while thousands more protested in other cities. It’s the biggest in a series of anti-government demonstrations in the eastern European country of 5.4 million people since Fico’s cabinet announced its plans.
President Zuzana Caputova, a former human rights lawyer, called the planned judiciary revamp a “serious threat to the state’s internal security” and urged the ruling coalition to subject the package of bills to legislative deliberation instead of a fast-track procedure.
“The combination of the proposed changes would be a resignation of the state on the protection of its citizens and effective enforcement of justice, and it may mean a departure from protection of rule of law,” she told lawmakers in a special address earlier on Thursday.
Fico, who won the election on promises to stop military aid to Ukraine, has hit a snag in parliament as the opposition is using procedural obstruction to delay the approval of his legislation. He has argued that the changes will bring local laws closer to other European states and curb political bias in legal proceedings. The proposals also include lower sentences for economic crimes and shorter periods for statute of limitations.
The EU Public Prosecutor’s Office said last month that the overhaul would “seriously affect” its ability to investigate and prosecute offenses in Slovakia and that the level of protection of the bloc’s financial interests “would decrease steeply.”
Fico’s previous stint in power ended nearly six years ago when he was forced to resign amid national outrage over the murder of an investigative journalist writing about corruption. If approved, the amended laws would halt several high-profile investigations and trials, while some cases involving former state officials and businessmen with links to Fico’s past governments would be reclassified to less serious offenses.
The coalition signaled it may agree to some concessions in the judiciary overhaul. Parliamentary Speaker Peter Pellegrini, who leads the second largest coalition party Voice, said that lawmakers won’t approve bills that “would reduce the possibility of fighting the most serious crimes.”
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