Hundreds Of Slovaks Protest The New Government's Plan To Close Prosecutors Office For Top Crimes

FILE - Newly appointed Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives for a swearing in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, Slovakia, Oct. 25, 2023. On Wednesday Dec. 6, 2023, Slovakia's new government, of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, approved an amendment of the country's penal code to cancel the special prosecutor's office that deals with most serious crimes and corruption. The move has been been criticized by President Zuzana Caputova, the opposition and no-governmental organisation who say it will harm the rule of law in the country. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
FILE - Newly appointed Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives for a swearing in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, Slovakia, Oct. 25, 2023. On Wednesday Dec. 6, 2023, Slovakia's new government, of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, approved an amendment of the country's penal code to cancel the special prosecutor's office that deals with most serious crimes and corruption. The move has been been criticized by President Zuzana Caputova, the opposition and no-governmental organisation who say it will harm the rule of law in the country. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Hundreds of people rallied Thursday in the Slovak capital to protest the new government’s plan to close the special prosecutors office that deals with major crimes, including high-profile murders, terrorism and graft.

The demonstrators in Bratislava — a crowd of about 2,000 people — say the plan is a threat to the rule of law. The rally, which took place outside the government headquarters, was organized by the opposition Progressive Slovakia, Christian Democrats and Freedom and Solidarity parties.

The organizers say the planned changes to the country’s penal code are designed to help people suspected of corruption who are close to the leftist Smer, or Direction, party of Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The rally ended without any violence and the organizers promised more protests.

The changes to legislative process will put the prosecution of major crimes back in the hands of regional prosecutors offices, which have not dealt with them for almost 20 years, is expected to be completed within weeks. The special prosecutors office is expected to be fully shuttered by mid-January.

Fico returned to power for the fourth time after his scandal-tainted leftist party won Slovakia’s Sept. 30 parliamentary election on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform.

His critics worry that his return could lead Slovakia to abandon its pro-Western course in other ways, following the example of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Some elite investigators and police officials who deal with top corruption cases have been dismissed or furloughed. The planned changes in the legal system include reduction of punishment for corruption.

Under the previous government, which came to power in 2020 after campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, dozens of senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and businesspeople linked to Smer have been charged and convicted of corruption and other crimes.

Several other cases have not been completed yet and it remains unclear what will happen to them under the new legislation.