Sunday, January 06, 2013

Irrational hysteria about Klaus' amnesty

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.


  1. Hey Lubo, any words of wisdom from the UCSC symposium?

  2. Hi! By this sentence, I am sending my congratulations to both celebrating physicists who are great (and whom I know well). I know about the fest but because I am out of the system (and wouldn't fight for the visas again), I haven't attended.

  3. You are saying it is a Czech thing. I will therefore be careful in future and only commit my intellectual crimes in Czechia.

  4. When I'd read about amnesties in kingdoms of olden times, I'd think amnesty was an odd idea, but I didn't think much about it. Insofar as I did think, I assumed that many prisoners in those kingdoms had been unjustly imprisoned, and the kings were crudely compensating for this because they found it impossible to reform the system so as to prevent the injustices in the first place.

    What actually was the reason for amnesties?

  5. Well, I think that the monarchs just wanted to show their power, magnanimity, compassion, to make the prisoners grateful and to show everyone else that the monarch could help them at a later time so they should be respectful towards him.

    It wasn't necessarily about "unjustly imprisoned". Amnesty is about generic imprisoned - and in most cases, the imprisoning was "just", at least officially.

    But the word "amnesty" is related to "amnesia", i.e. forgetting, so one simply forgets the crimes and the sentences as well. A thick line is drawn, some human capital is saved, the prison expenses may drop, the GDP may increase by the people who are now freed.

    It's fashionable among many people today - especially in Czechia but also elsewhere - to be disrespectful towards everyone above them, as a matter of principle, so the positive feedback that used to increase the respect towards the king works in reverse for most people, I am afraid. They start with the assumption that everything that the politicians do is inevitably wrong, so every act - especially a big one-time act such as amnesty - reinforces this prejudices of theirs.

  6. From "Greek amnēstia forgetfulness, from amnēstos forgotten, from a- + mnasthai to remember"First Known Use: 1580

    Amnesties were given after civil conflicts so that the ones imprisoned because of rebellion could get justice.. Wiping the slate clean, so to speak.

    I do not see the use of a general amnesty during peace times other than in government economies on the budget.

  7. Lubos, Anna v, thank you! Jesus Christ, those were quick replies. I was just sitting here staring at my message when they came through. You both must be divinely inspired. :-)

    Lubos, I see your point that by assuming that all pols are crooked, we reverse things in a bad way. I have always tried to correct people who say that they're all crooked, but I think more pols should cooperate with this by not being crooked. :-)

    Anna v, yes, I forgot about rebellions.

  8. Lubos, speaking of sins and forgiveness, I understand that Hugo Chavez's ex-wife has published a letter of "farewell" (fare not well) to him. She tells him that he "dressed countless homes in mourning," he "persecuted without quarter," he put people in "dungeons undeserved, not an animal [not even an animal would deserve it], he "mocked," he "humiliated." Then: Where are the 5-star hotels now, the palaces, the parades, the honorary degrees? The evil spirits gather in your room. Do you sense them? And more.

    You believed the fairy tales of Fidel, Che, Bolivar, and you told people to read Marx, but [you yourself did not read him?].

    (I doubt that Chavez is bright enough to understand Marx. Not that I praise Marx, but he was difficult.)

    And more.

    I think it's fine that she says these things, but as a Christian she should follow by praying for his soul.

    I don't have an original URL. A commenter at the Belmont Club quoted it in Spanish. I put it through Google Translate, which did a very poor job, so I went over it and did some translating myself.

    BTW, I still don't understand why Google Translate does not do a better job. It gets some very easy things wrong. As to what you said about case endings in Slavic languages, the case endings should make things easier for a computer, not harder.

  9. Klaus knew very well what is doing. His amnesty has actually one purpose - to stop criminal investigation for people who could help him after end of his presidency. Who is going to support his think tank "Vaclav Klaus institute"? (one would say "Vaclav Klaus corruption practices institute")
    This strong brotherhood of thieves will keep Czech political scene murky and corrupted as it is today.

    I am convinced that anybody who agree with article 2 of presidential amnesty has strong reason to do so. Such person is ether thief himself or has strong relationship to thieves stealing for years on our taxes.

  10. As against amnesty I have to say that when Albania gave amnesty and opened the prisons, some very hard criminals inundated her neighbors. We got very hard crimes we had not thought possible for a few drachmae and later euros. Life in prison makes some real criminal prisoners put a low value on human life, and they kill for a few euros. Later we got the same effect from Afgans and Georgians. For some reason the criminals from there set very little value on human life.

  11. Your comment is severely insulting, untrue, as well as immensely childish.

    The idea that the people who leave some prison and/or investigation will be key for "helping Klaus after his presidency" is so insane that I should recommend you to find a psychiatrist.

    I've attended the pre-Xmas event with Klaus at the Prague Castle and I can assure you that he has sponsors (Kellner just rented that "chateau" for the institute), contacts in between lots of rich men with hot partners, there's no simple way to "abuse" those things, and he's surely not looking for more of this stuff because it's useless for everything that Klaus cares about. Even if he were looking, he wouldn't find it among the amnesty-ready folks.

    This strong brotherhood of thieves will keep Czech political scene murky and corrupted as it is today.

    The main reason why tons of people like you love to believe in preposterous fairy-tales about brotherhoods of thieves who control all of us is that you would love any story whose message is a justification why you are such a loser. There aren't any brotherhood of thieves who matter for the functioning or malfunctioning of the country. All the criminal activity of this kind that occurs is a minor perturbation and it is in no way more serious than other types of crimes that occur.

  12. Dear Smoking Frog, thanks for your interest but I didn't understand the Chavez wife's letter and/or its relevance for the topic of amnesties etc.

    Concerning your "More pols should cooperate". First, I don't believe that most politicians are participating in criminal activity or activity that should be criminal and I have already mentioned that.

    Second, yours is still a different way of understanding how a modern political system should work than mine. It seems that you want to make some utopias true - they're not necessarily utopias but they're utopias. I don't know what would be the relevance of the wishful thinking that "all politicians should be super honest".

    Maybe they "should", in some very abstract moral sense, but what's more important is that they obviously won't. The democratic system is programmed to deal with all such things. Unlike communism, democracy isn't exclusively designed for some superoptimized saints. Democracy is a system that deals with real-world people. The quality of life in a country will ultimately reflect the people's inherent moral values, abilities, wealth, as well as the refinement of the contacts between them. It seems obvious to me that none of those things may really change discontinuously so in my optics, any call for a discontinuous change of any of these parameters is a violent attack against democracy itself.

  13. Many of the freed are comitting crimes again. It's actually the same crimes you'd read about all the time but crammed in a short time. But they'd happen anyway. Once their sentence is over they seem not to waste any time. In most cases it's not really a surprise, they spend years in prison, they're not particularly bright, they have no money, no job and nowhere to go. Prison is an upgrade or at least nothing to be afraid of. Making it a hell also doesn't work (all those third-world country prisons are always full). You'd have to divise a completely different system to correct the recidivists. The Norwegian way may not be such a bad idea after all.

  14. Dear Anna, the bias in your description is self-evident in almost every sentence. First, you pick some people in Albania and you generalize the behavior of these people as the behavior of all people who were freed from prison. To be sure that acronyms won't remain misunderstand: what the fuck???

    We're not Albanians here - although it seems that you implicitly assume that all people you're discussing with are politically correct loons and jerks who will claim that every nation is as good as the Albanians. Holy crap, we Czechs suck in many ways but we still suck qualitatively less than the Albanians. And we're also not idiots who must rely on some remote, almost unrelated anecdotal "evidence" cherry-picked to support a preconceived conclusion. We may look at actual numbers.

    In 1990, Havel released 1/2 of the 30,000 prisoners. The freed prisoners only contributed 9 percent of the crime rate of that year in the whole Czechoslovakia. If the dependence were linear (it's not quite linear), freeing all prisoners would only change the overall crime rate by 18 percent, while saving lots of money for the running of prisons. So the crimes done by these people are clearly not the main consideration that is relevant (although we have already seen serious crimes done by the freed people, too).

  15. Fine, most of those recidivists also repeat to the prison rather soon. What's the problem? Their contribution to the overall crime rate is still small while their contribution to the prisons' population is 1/3.

    Your comment, much like the comments of others, seem to be so obvious propaganda that I feel almost certain that you must realize that what you're doing is just propaganda. Of course that in any sufficiently large group of people, you will find some people who commit crime in a given period of time. What's so surprising about it? Indeed, it's not surprising. But it's also a bad litmus test to decide whether amnesty is a good thing or not.

    To judge it fairly, you have to look at the overall group of people who were freed, who were given a second chance. Some of them don't use it too constructively. But most of them actually do. Why do you pretend that these folks don't exist at all? Why are you always cherry-picking the minorities and incidents that are helpful for your predecided conclusion?

  16. I don't have any problem with the amnesty. It's just the inefficiency of prisons. I had 10000CZK stolen from me and 20 others on Aukro. The guy goes to prison, he spends few years doing nothing and then comes back with very little prospect. Also I will never see my money again. I'd much rather see him work and try to repay me. If anything his prospects to reintegrate back to society diminish in prison even if he doesn't commit any crime again.

  17. Oh Lumo,

    but this symposium looks cool and you should have been there to have fun too ;-)

  18. Dear Frog, what Google Translate does is actually quite impressive considering the enormity of the task, which is rewriting text in one natural language, with all its messiness, accreted gunk, intentional obscurity to keep strangers guessing, flowery metaphors, insider jokes, exceptions from exceptions to the rules, illogical grammar etc. etc. in another natural language, with an equal amount of baggage. (GT's performance varies, of course, depending on the language pair; however, Spanish to English is one of the most thoroughly researched language pairs in machine translation.)

    Your version, however, sucks, so better stick to your day job :)

  19. I think it is more fair when the President gives individual amnesties rather than collective amnesties.

  20. Dear Shannon, an amnesty by definition applies to a group. ;-) The individual acts are called "pardons". ;-)

  21. Really ? Not in France.

  22. Hysteria? Have you heard of the rapings? Robbings that have occured immediately after the amnesty? And what about the police? What regard do we have for them? We don't care for your work, you're good enough to arrest them again I suppose.

  23. Lubos - The relevance of Chavez's ex-wife's letter is very weak, I see now. It's just that you called Jesus the ultimate giver of amnesties, and the ex-wife's letter had a Christian religious theme but failed to take into account that Chavez might be forgiven.

    No, I don't believe in any utopia with non-crooked politicians. I just think we have more crooked politicians than we should; I think it's possible to do better. I'm using "crooked" not only in the sense of stealing money, but of neglecting important problems for the sake of political advantage.

  24. Eugene S - I have no idea of where to place Google Translate on the unimpressive-impressive spectrum, but it makes errors for which I see no excuse. For example, the headline of the article about Chavez's ex-wife's letter clearly says that the letter is from her to him, but Google reverses it. As for "[my] version," what I put in my message I only roughed in from memory.

  25. I agree with amnesty. On the other hand, I strongly oppose abolition, since it breaks the very principles of theory of justice based on retribution. Not to forget that Jakl's arguments are at least problematic, if not a complete lie. If I should cite chair of the supreme court: "Rozkládá to právní vědomí společnosti." (sorry, can't translate this precisely). I'm very curious about decision of constitutional court.

  26. Well, you have probable the reason why to defend it.
    I'll stop by one sentence:
    "All the criminal activity of this kind that occurs is a minor perturbation "
    Did you ever think about the victims? Can you imagine somebody's lifetime savings are gone because of "minor perturbation" happened? Bolsheviks were also focused at the crowd and did not pay attention to individuals. Those are only splinters when we are harvesting forest...

  27. Dear Novotny, yes, I've often (and recently) thought about many victims.

    But when I am thinking about a nation-wide policy, I meticulously avoid being manipulated by individual anecdotes and focus on an overall, statistically robust, perspective.

    So yes, when one is harvesting forest - introducing laws or actions that are valid in a whole big nation - it's inevitable that it will have some negative consequences i.e. splinters locally.

  28. Wide range of three people is not probably wide enough to differentiate beams from splinters..