The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Suspected would-be assassin ordered detained as Slovak prime minister's condition is stable

Associated Press Saturday, 18 May 2024, 17:55 Last update: about 27 days ago

The man accused of attempting to assassinate Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was ordered to remain behind bars Saturday as the nation’s leader was in serious but stable condition after surviving multiple gunshots, officials said.

Slovakia’s Specialized Criminal Court ordered the detention of the suspect after prosecutors said they feared he could flee or carry out other crimes if set free, a court spokesperson said. The suspect can appeal the order to the Supreme Court.

Fico, 59, was shot in the abdomen as he greeted supporters following a government meeting Wednesday in the former coal mining town of Handlova, officials said. Video showed Fico approach people gathered at barricades and reach out to shake hands as a man stepped forward, extended his arm and fired five rounds before being tackled and arrested.

Government ministers outside the hospital where Fico is being treated said his condition Saturday looked promising after two hours of surgery Friday removed dead tissue from his gunshot wounds. But he still is not healthy enough to travel to a hospital in the capital, Bratislava.

“Several miracles have occurred ... in the past few days, coming from the hands of the doctors, nurses and entire medical staff,” Defense Minister Rober Kalinak said outside University F. D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banská Bystrica, where Fico was taken by helicopter after the shooting. “I can’t find words of gratitude for the fact that we are steadily approaching that positive prognosis.”

The hearing in Pezinok, a small town outside the capital, Bratislava, was held behind closed doors and under tight security by heavily armed police. Reporters were not allowed on the grounds of the courthouse.

Officers carrying rifles wore flak jackets, helmets and had balaclavas covering their faces. They guarded a gate that only opened when a vehicle presumably carrying the suspect came and later left with a two-car police escort.

Little information about the suspect has been disclosed after prosecutors told police not to publicly identify him or release details about the case. Unconfirmed media reports have named him and said he was a 71-year-old retiree known as an amateur poet who may have once worked as a mall security guard.

Government authorities gave details that matched that description. They said the suspect didn’t belong to any political groups, though the attack itself was politically motivated.

It’s not clear how long the hearing lasted but the suspect was inside for about four hours.

A day earlier, police took the suspect to his home in the town of Levice and seized a computer and some documents, Markiza, a Slovak television station reported.

Footage showed the gray-bearded man being escorted out of the building while holding a shopping bag full of items in his cuffed hands. He was wearing a helmet and protective vest.

Police didn’t comment on the apparent search.

With authorities remaining largely silent about the case, it was not clear how the suspect got a gun.

Slovakia has strict rules on firearms and gun owners must have a good reason to possess one and are required to pass a test.

As a consequence, Slovakia has one of the lowest gun ownership rates in Europe. It was ranked 23rd out of 27 European Union countries with a gun ownership rate of 6.5 per 100 people, according to the Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the EU.

World leaders have condemned the attack and offered support for Slovakia and Fico, who has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond.

His return to power for the fourth time last year on a pro-Russia, anti-American platform led to worries among fellow European Union and NATO members that he would abandon his country’s pro-Western course, particularly neighboring Ukraine. Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, but Fico halted arms deliveries when he returned to power.

Fico’s government has also made efforts to overhaul public broadcasting — a move critics said would give the government full control of public television and radio. That, coupled with his plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special prosecutor that deals with organized crime, corruption and extremism, have led opponents to worry Fico will lead Slovakia down a more autocratic path.

Before Fico returned to power last year, many of his political and business associates were the focus of police investigations, and dozens have been charged.

Thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly rallied in the capital and around the country of 5.4 million to protest his policies.

Fico said last month on Facebook that he believed rising tensions in the country could lead to the killing of politicians, and he blamed the media for fueling tensions.

Supporters of Fico who showed up outside the hospital Saturday spoke of the divisions in the country that had led to this moment.

“We are here mainly because the opposition’s hatred of this government has come to such a point that a psychopath who is an assassin has been created and has (tried to) assassinate Prime Minister Robert Fico,” Marek Soun said. “He has been harassed for months and months by today’s opposition.”

Despite nobody being named as temporary leader of Slovakia, there was nothing imminent that needed the premier’s attention and the government was operating as planned and moving forward with Fico’s agenda, Kalinak said.

Communication with Fico was limited given his condition, Kalinak said.

The next government session is planned for Wednesday and Kalinak will be in charge, the Slovak government office said.

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