Analysis: Vlastimil Pechanec - neo-Nazi martyr or hard-core murderer?
On 21 July 2014 it will be 13 years since Otto Absolon, a father of two young children, died at the hands of a local neo-Nazi, Vlastimil Pechanec, in the East Bohemian town of Svitavy. At the end of last month, Mr Absolon's murderer was conditionally released from prison.
Pechanec had served almost 13 years of his current 18.5 year prison sentence (17 years for racially motivated murder plus a year and a half for a previous assault on two youths). From the beginning he has insisted on his innocence.
Both the Regional and the High Court have reviewed the evidence a total of four times, ultimately arriving at the opinion that there is no doubt Pechanec committed murder and then discussing the length of his sentence. The early release is surprising, as Pechanec is a recidivist, and it is especially surprising given that he continues to deny he is to blame for Mr Absolon's death.
It is often the case that not just murderers, but other delinquent recidivists serve their sentences in full. Should such a person be released early, the justice system is risking the possibility that the parolee could harm others.
On the other hand, everyone should be given a second chance. A prison sentence of 13 years is decidedly not a short one, and the state often counts on a criminal learning his lesson during such a length of time.
Trial not likely to reopen
Let's briefly summarize how the murder of Otto Absolon occurred. During the evening of 20 July 2001, a group of Romani people from Svitavy, together with Mr Absolon's common-law wife, who is "white", visited a discotheque in the cellar of the local National House.
The friends had no idea that a group of neo-Nazis from Svitavy and elsewhere were among the customers inside the venue. The neo-Nazis noticed the Romani people when they walked in.
According to the verdict, Pechanec welcomed them with the words: "What do you black swine want here?" He then stabbed Mr Absolon twice, who fell to the ground, remained conscious, and managed to crawl outside to the street, where he was picked up by emergency services, transported to hospital, and succumbed to his injuries the next day.
Since 2004, those who champion the convicted murderer have annually held a march for the man they view as an "innocent victim of the system" in Svitavy, always on the Saturday before or after the anniversary of the death of Mr Absolon. During the years of unsuccessful efforts to reopen Pechanec's trial, various myths about it have arisen.
In addition to neo-Nazis, ambitious populist politicians such as Tomio Okamura have latched onto these myths, and Okamura even visited the "martyr" this year in prison. On the day he was released from prison, Pechanec issued a press release stating he would continue to fight to reopen his trial so he can prove his innocence.
Should he succeed, and should the trial be repeated, it is far from certain that a new court would find him innocent and that the state would have to compensate him for unlawful detention. Reopening it would involve complications, as four significant players in the case are already dead: Pechanec's original defense attorney, one of the key eyewitnesses, the original legal representative of the victims, and one of the customers in the discotheque who was also originally suspected of committing the murder.
However, the court could base its ruling on written evidence, Pechanec can find a new defense attorney, and the victims have had another legal representative since 2002. I have followed this case closely, from beginning to end, and before he passed away I also discussed it with Jakub Polák, who was the victims' original legal representative, as well as with attorney David Strupek.
The victims fired Mr Polák as their representative for taking Pechanec's side, and Strupek succeeded him. During the trial I also spoke with Pechanec's attorney more than once.
While he himself was convinced his client was guilty, he took the case as he would have any other, and in his concluding arguments he pointed to serious mistakes made by police and
contradictions in the testimony given by witnesses during the first phase of the investigation. After the High Court verdict was announced, Pechanec presumed his attorney would appeal to the Supreme Court.
However, he did not do so within the timeframe required, which means no appeal will ever be possible now. It would be difficult to verify whether Pechanec's attorney intentionally missed the deadline, as he is no longer alive.
Myths and truth
So let's put things in order a bit here. What are the biggest myths about this case to have turned up over the years and to have taken root in the Czech media?
One myth is that Pechanec's innocence was allegedly defended by the late Jakub Polák. What is true is that Mr Polák did not believe Pechanec to have been the sole person 100 % guilty of the murder.
Mr Polák claimed that neither the police nor the court ever investigated the possible complicity of the other parties present, who probably formed a "wall" behind Pechanec. That is precisely why Mr Polák also endeavored - albeit unsuccessfully - to have the trial reopened.
According to some who have been spreading myths about the case, the knife identified as the murder weapon could not have caused the injuries reported on the body of the victim. What is true is that the knife Pechanec used to stab his victim was never found.
When the police patrol arrived at the scene and searched Pechanec, he give them "his" knife, which he claimed to always carry with him like a real man. Another knife was found behind a window in the discotheque bathroom, but police found no blood, DNA or fingerprints on it.
Pechanec's friends could have been carrying many knives among them, and the murder weapon could easily have been smuggled away from the crime scene, as police did not secure the area and many customers of the discotheque left without police searching them. After homicidally attacking Mr Absolon, Pechanec not only had enough time to exchange knives with a friend, he had enough time to change his t-shirt, and he was able to claim to the court that eyewitnesses to the murder were not telling the truth when they claimed they saw him dressed in black.
At the time of his arrest, Pechanec was wearing a white t-shirt, and some eyewitnesses claimed they saw a guy in black fleeing the scene of the crime. The police patrol did not secure the area around the discotheque and let many people freely leave.
The most convincing evidence of his guilt, however, is provided by Pechanec himself. As a hard-core criminal who had amassed an "admirable" criminal record by the age of 22, he would have known what kind of evidence might incriminate him.
After police arrested Pechanec that fateful night in front of the discotheque in Svitavy, they released him on his own recognizance, even though several eyewitnesses had already identified him as the perpetrator. He went home and, in the dead of night, washed the clothing he claimed to have been wearing at the discotheque at the time of the murder.
When the criminal police picked him up for questioning in the morning, he was unable to provide them with a key piece of evidence - one that would either have absolved him of guilt or incriminated him. That begs the question of why a person who had to have known he would be the first one suspected would have washed his clothes that night.
In conclusion, a brief projection
Today Pechanec has six more years to go on parole. For a person who has committed one crime after another since the age of 15, that is a long time.
If he breaks parole, he will have to spend another five and a half years in prison irrespective of whether he committed this murder or not. In that case he won't be released even one day early - as long as the justice system learns its lesson.
On the other hand, among neo-Nazis it is the custom that worthy veterans of their movement who have served long sentences become "heroes". The neo-Nazi crimes of the future are committed by younger people who have yet to earn their own "heroism", so one way or another, this drama will have a sequel yet.
However, there is some good news, mainly for the children of the late Mr Absolon, and that is this year the neo-Nazi march through the streets of Svitavy was canceled shortly after Pechanec's release from prison. At least someone here seems to have learned their lesson.
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