Czechs choose new president amid shock of amnesties by outgoing Vaclav Klaus

With his rants against the EU and gay rights, Vaclav Klaus has been no stranger to controversy in his 10 years as Czech president. But one of his final acts in power — a sudden prisoner amnesty — has backfired so badly he's being accused of treason.

His portrait has been torn down in anger in schools and offices across the country in a rapidly-evolving scandal that has cast a shadow over this weekend's presidential election and tainted the post which, while largely ceremonial from the grandeur of Prague Castle, is seen to carry moral weight. It could also swing the outcome of the runoff vote that began Friday.

To mark the country's 20th anniversary of independence on Jan. 1, Klaus used a traditional tool of Czech presidents and ordered the release of more than 6,000 inmates serving short prison terms. But what really infuriated many Czechs was that the decree also halted court proceedings in several high-profile fraud cases and financial scams on the grounds he wanted to stop "endless criminal proceedings."

The opposition suspects his main motive may be to protect people close to his inner circle, a claim he vehemently denies.

The controversy has touched a raw nerve in a nation that threw off communism in 1989 and has become increasingly angered by widespread corruption. Czechs, voting Friday and Saturday to elect a new president to replace Klaus, are waking up every day to new names of pardoned felons and shocking tales of people who ripped off thousands.

Bronislava Kupkova, now 86, took out a loan of 2 million koruna ($104,000) from a bank in 1995 to buy a house she never got. She had to work till she was 82 to pay the money back. And the culprits are among those pardoned.

"It's injustice ... it's not right, but tell me; what can an ordinary person who has never stolen anything and had to work all the time do about it?" Kupkova told AP. The amnesty means her chance to seek any compensation is "close to zero," she said.

The frustration at Klaus, who polarized public with his strident views on Brussels, gays and global warming, has mushroomed.

And his legacy — as the economics professor who oversaw the transition to free markets in the 1990s — will now most likely be rewritten.

A businessman supported by 17 non-governmental organizations called on the Senate on Wednesday to file impeachment charges against Klaus in order to "renew the confidence of citizens in the rule of law."

Almost 35,000 people have backed the call online in less than two days. And a group of 30 senators has challenged Klaus' decree at the Constitutional Court.

Only the Senate has the power to file treason charges at the Constitutional Court. The senators plan to discuss next month what steps to take. Klaus' final term ends in March.

"We need to know the view of the highest legal authority in the country — whether this amnesty, its content is in line with the Constitution," said Alena Gajduskova, deputy speaker of the Senate who filed the challenge and called Klaus' move "unacceptable."

Both candidates in this weekend's election runoff have distanced themselves from the amnesty.

Karel Schwarzenberg, a bow tie-wearing aristocrat, is a sworn enemy of Klaus and has been at odds with the current prime minister, Petr Necas, who co-signed the decree. Schwarzenberg accused Necas of failing to warn the government about what was coming. Left-winger Milos Zeman, the other candidate, is supported by Klaus but has said the amnesty should only have applied to people for humanitarian reasons.

The prisoner release has come as a major blow for tens of thousands of fraud victims who have been seeking compensation for damages, including Kupkova.

"It's terrible," said Hana Marvanova, a lawyer who represents about a hundred people who lost their money in a bogus housing scheme. "They have a feeling of total lawlessness."

Three managers in that case have already been cleared. They promised to build homes for a thousand people but made off with the funds worth about $100 million.

"It took years to investigate what it was all about and this is the result: the perpetrators have support at the top levels in the country. It's impossible to explain that to them," said Maranova, a former anti-communist dissident.

Klaus has dismissed the criticism, calling it a "wave of hysteria" and an attack on him by his enemies.

That has not helped.

"Vaclav Klaus is leaving his office in the worst possible way," said an editorial in the Lidove Noviny daily.

The deputy leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Lubomir Zaoralek, said the amnesty is a sign that "the state stands behind organized crime." Zaoralek, who says several presidential advisers have links to some of those covered by the pardon, asked Klaus to reveal who drafted the document for him. His request was rejected.

As the Czech president occupies a largely ceremonial post, the right to grant amnesty seems inappropriate to many. But there are precedents.

During his presidency, Vaclav Havel, a much-loved dissident playwright who helped topple communism, used it three times. In 1990, he ordered the release of some 23,000 prisoners in an attempt — criticized by the public then — to draw a line under more than 40 years of communism that ended in the 1989 peaceful Velvet Revolution.

But to free those charged with corruption is the last straw in a country that has taken an increasingly hard line against graft.

Many Czechs have been showing their indignation with corruption in unusual ways. CorruptTour, a travel agency established last year that organizes trips to places linked to corruption, has been doing a roaring trade under its slogan: "the best of the worst."

Some 40 people joined the tour Thursday, braving piercing cold, frost and snow. They burst into laughter when Eva Cechova, a tour guide, quipped in front of the presidential office that the amnesty was "the biggest achievement of Klaus' presidency."

A 23-year-old student Vanda Koleckova was among them and said she hopes the constitutional court overturns the decree.

"It's very Czech to make fun of the unbelievable scope of corruption," she said. "Humor is a way for us Czechs to deal with that."