The Lithuanian Supreme Court's recent ruling shielding judges from searches by law enforcement will impede corruption investigations, an official says. The rule may also be extended to members of parliament suspected of crimes.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a search “in fact means the restriction of the person's freedom”. The Constitution bans restricting judges' freedom without the consent of the Seimas or, if it is in between sessions, the president.
Žydrūnas Bartkus, the head of the country's Special Investigation Service (STT), warned on Tuesday that the rule may seriously impede corruption probes.
Bartkus told BNS on Tuesday that “after this ruling, there will be situations in practice during top-level corruption investigations when law enforcement institutions simply won’t be able to carry out the necessary procedural action, a search, just because of the impracticable legal procedure”.
Even though the Supreme Court gave its opinion about judges only, some lawyers say the reasoning could also be applied to protect members of the Seimas from searches.
“This decision will negatively affect the fight against corruption,” the STT head said.
The prosecution service agrees. The Prosecutor General's Office states in its complaint with the Supreme Court that the requirement to secure a permission from the parliament or the president to carry out a search “would grant a judge absolute immunity”.
In its long-awaited ruling, the Supreme Court stated that, two years ago, Vilnius Regional Court “justly deemed that the searches of judge Ramūnas Antanavičius were unlawful” and the collected evidence unfit to be used in court.
The Supreme Court said that the immunity enjoyed by judges was necessary for the independence of the judiciary and for shielding courts and judges from political pressure.
The only exception is when a judge is caught committing a crime, the court noted.
Antanavičius, a judge of Kaunas Regional Court, was accused of giving a 600-euro bribe to another judge.
The ruling should not affect the ongoing high-profile judicial corruption case where eight judges were subjected to searches upon a permission from the then president, Dalia Grybauskaitė.
However, lawyers might try to cite the ruling in the ongoing political corruption case involving former MPs Eligijus Masiulis and Vytautas Gapšys who were subjected to searches without their immunity lifted. The constitutional provisions shielding members of parliament and judges from prosecution are very similar.
“I believe the provisions of the Constitution, the Statute of the Seimas and the Law on Courts on the immunity of Seimas members and judges should be interpreted and applied equally,” Saulius Juzukunis, a lawyer representing Gapšys, told BNS.
Aurelijus Gutauskas, the chairman of the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court, said in a comment to BNS that the precedent formulated in this case applies only to judges.