BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Mass street protests intensified Thursday across Slovakia against a plan by populist Prime Minister Robert Fico to amend the country's penal code and eliminate the office of the special prosecutor that deals with major crime and corruption.
Thousands were rallying as the protests spread to 31 cities and towns across the country, up from two dozens last week. Rallies also took place abroad, where Slovaks live, such as the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Norway, Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg, organizers said.
The plan approved by Fico’s coalition government includes abolishing the special prosecutors’ office, which handles crimes such as graft, organized crime and extremism. Those cases would be taken over by prosecutors in regional offices, which have not handled such cases for 20 years.
The planned changes also include a reduction in punishments for corruption and some other crimes, including the possibility of suspended sentences, and a significant shortening of the statute of limitations.
Parliament is currently debating the draft but the ruling coalition has approved a fast-track parliamentary procedure to approve the changes and limit time for discussion. The vote may come as early as next week.
“Slovakia will become a haven for criminals,” Richard Sulík, head of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity party, told the crowd at the central SNP square in the capital of Bratislava.
“Mafia, mafia,” people chanted. “Fico is evil,” read one of the banners held by people.
“We will stop them if we stay united,” said Michal Šimečka, who heads the liberal Progressive Slovakia, the strongest opposition party,
President Zuzana Čaputová sharply criticized the proposed changes and said she is willing to challenge the legislation before the Constitutional Court.
Some European Union institutions have questioned the Slovak proposals. Fico returned to power for the fourth time after his scandal-tainted leftist party won the Sept. 30 parliamentary elections on a pro-Russia and an anti-American platform.
A number of people linked to Fico's party — the scandal-tainted leftist Smer, or Direction — face prosecution in corruption scandals.
Fico’s critics worry his return could lead Slovakia to abandon its pro-Western course and instead follow the direction similar to that of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.