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Slovakia’s top court approves key parts of a contentious amendment of the penal code

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovakia’s highest legal authority on Wednesday ruled that key provisions of a contentious amendment of the penal code drafted by the government of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico are in line with the country’s constitution.

The legislation, which was approved by Parliament in February, faced sharp criticism at home and abroad. Thousands of Slovaks took to the streets in protests that spread from the capital, Bratislava, to more than 30 cities and towns — and even abroad.

Fico, who is recovering at home from multiple wounds he suffered in an assassination attempt on May 15, welcomed the ruling. He said in a statement his coalition government claimed “a 100:0” victory over its critics and asked them, including former President Zuzana Čaputová, the opposition, media and non-governmental organizations to apologize for their protests and what he called “expressions of hate.”

In its decision, the Constitutional Court said the changes — including the abolishing of the special prosecutors’ office handling serious crimes such as graft, organized crime and extremism — do not violate the constitution. Those cases will be taken over by prosecutors in regional offices, which have not dealt such cases for the past 20 years.

The changes also include reduced sentences for corruption and some other crimes, and the possibility of suspended sentences as well as a significant shortening of the statute of limitations.

The European Parliament had questioned Slovakia’s ability to fight corruption if the changes were adopted. European officials said Slovakia’s plans threaten the protection of the European Union’s financial interests and its anti-corruption framework.

Still, Fico’s ruling coalition fast-tracked the changes in Parliament, bypassing reviews by experts and others typically involved in the process, and limited the time for parliamentary debate. A number of people linked to Fico’s party, including lawmakers, face prosecution in corruption scandals.

Čaputová and opposition parties challenged the amendment at the Constitutional Court, saying it could jeopardize the rule of law.

Čaputová’s successor, Peter Pellegrini, a close ally of Fico, said he “fully respects” the court’s verdict.

Fico returned to power for the fourth time last year after his leftist party Smer, or Direction, won parliamentary elections last September, after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-American message.

His critics worry Slovakia could abandon its pro-Western course and follow the direction of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

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