Leading Slovak Extremist Sentenced to 4 Years in Jail Over Use of Neo-Nazi Symbol

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — A Slovakian court has sentenced the country’s leading neo-fascist politician to more than four years in prison after he used a well-known neo-Nazi symbol.

The politician, Marian Kotleba, the head of the extremist People’s Party Our Slovakia, was convicted of founding, supporting and promoting a movement and ideology aimed at suppressing civil rights and democratic freedoms. His sentencing on Monday was the culmination of a high-profile trial that lasted several months.

“It is a testimony of change,” Grigorij Meseznikov, a political scientist at the Public Affairs Institute in Bratislava, said on Tuesday. “What it means for the country is that the legal tools against those who undermine the democracy are finally working.”

The conviction of Mr. Kotleba was a blow to the country’s far-right movement, which gained popularity at the height of the migration crisis in 2015. Mr. Kotleba’s party, which opposes Slovakia’s membership in the European Union and NATO, entered the Parliament in 2016.

The party drew energy from broad public disgust with a political system rife with corruption.

But in February 2018, the murders of a young investigative reporter and his fiancée set off the largest protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, leading to the collapse of the longtime governing party and paving the way for a new, conservative government coalition. The current government has presided over a more effective enforcement of laws to battle extremism and corruption.

Mr. Kotleba’s party kept its support, winning roughly 8 percent of the vote in the February election and remaining part of the opposition in Parliament.

Mr. Kotleba used to appear in uniforms reminiscent of those worn during the wartime Slovak State, which was run by the Nazi puppet regime led by a former Roman Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso. But as Mr. Kotleba’s party moved into the mainstream, he shifted his attacks from Jews to immigrants and the country’s Roma minority.

The case against Mr. Kotleba centered on the distribution of three checks for 1,488 euros to families in need at a public event in 2017. The prosecutor Tomas Honz argued in court that the amount of each check — 1,488 — was a clear reference to neo-Nazi ideology.

According to the prosecutors and expert witnesses, the number 14 was a reference to “14 Words,” a popular white supremacist slogan. They said the number 88 was an allusion to the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler,” in which each word begins with the eighth letter in the English alphabet.

The special court for organized crime in the town of Pezinok sentenced Mr. Kotleba to four years and four months in prison. He has said he will appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, and he will remain in Parliament until the appeal process is complete.

But if his conviction is upheld, he can never run for election again and he would be the first sitting member of parliament to go to jail since Slovakia became independent in 1993.

“The words themselves don’t mean anything,” Judge Ruzena Sabova said in her verdict, adding that the numbers had meaning only in the context that they are signs of extremism.

In an eight-hour speech on Monday, Mr. Kotleba argued that the numbers were coincidental and the trial unfair. In an attempt to drag out the proceedings, he pulled a number of stunts.

They included reading out long lists of items or contracts priced with similar sums and commenting on all of the witness testimony.

“The event was not neo-Nazi,” Mr. Kotleba said during the trial. “The event had a beautiful, Christian and national character, and I handed charity checks to three families.”

Losing patience with the theatrics in the courtroom, Judge Sabova fined him €500, or about $590, for disrespecting the court.

Mr. Honz, the prosecutor, told reporters that the court’s ruling was a victory in Slovakia’s fight against extremism.

“It is a message for all the democrats in Slovakia that the courts and prosecution will stand up for people who are victims of extremism, violence, racial hatred, fascism or neo-Nazism,” he said.

Rights organizations and many politicians in Slovakia also welcomed the verdict.

“No democracy is immune to the threat of extremism,” a group of local anti-extremism organizations said in a joint statement released on Monday. “We are glad that extremism in Slovakia is finally being punished and addressed with the appropriate attention.”

Andrea Buckova, the Slovak government representative for Roma communities, which are often targeted by Mr. Kotleba’s party, said the verdict was the “only possible fair decision.” “It is also a satisfaction for everyone who Marian Kotleba is trying to turn into second-class citizens with his hateful rhetoric and actions,” she said on Facebook. “Fascism has no place in our society.”

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